Asian American and Pacific Islander members of Congress, along with outside advocates, have been seething for some time about limited representation in Joe Biden’s Cabinet. Katherine Tai, the recently confirmed United States trade representative, is the lone AAPI member of the Cabinet, but there are no AAPI full Cabinet secretaries for the first time in decades.
Two AAPI Democratic senators, Illinois’ Tammy Duckworth and Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono, raised the complaint to White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon on a virtual conference Monday night, as Axios first reported. Among the defenses O’Malley Dillon raised was that, well, Vice President Kamala Harris is the first Asian American woman to serve as vice president, and that’s a fairly big job.
It didn’t go over well with Duckworth.
“Last night, that was the trigger for me,” she told reporters Tuesday, describing O’Malley Dillon’s raising of Harris as “incredibly insulting.”
“Multiple times I’ve heard that,” she said. “And that is not something you would say to the Black Caucus—‘Well, you have Kamala, we’re not going to put any more African Americans in the Cabinet because you have Kamala’—why would you say it to AAPI?”
Duckworth informed the White House that she would vote against all of Biden’s “non-diversity appointees”—those who aren’t racial minorities or LGBTQ—until the White House either appoints another AAPI member to a prominent position or offers some sort of commitment for one down the road. Hirono joined Duckworth later Tuesday afternoon.
“Tammy’s position is that until she gets a commitment from the White House that there will be more diversity representation in the Cabinet and senior White House advisory positions, she will not vote to confirm anyone who does not represent diversity,” Hirono said. “This is not about pitting one diversity group against another. I think this is a well-articulated, focused position. I am prepared to join her in that.”
According to Duckworth, she and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus had first been told by the White House that even though there weren’t any AAPI Cabinet secretaries, in her words, the White House considered “the trade representatives and the OMB director to be Cabinet-level, because they sit around the table.” But once Biden’s pick for director of the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, withdrew, there was a pressure effort from powerful House Democrats—including the top three leaders, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus—to push the White House into promoting Tanden’s would-be deputy, Shalanda Young, to the top OMB job. Asian American groups tried to coalesce around former Obama administration Housing and Urban Development official Nani Coloretti as their preferred alternative. Duckworth, however, implied that momentum had swung against her.
“And now we’re hearing that the push is not for the AAPI candidate to be considered for head of OMB,” Duckworth said. “To be told that, well, ‘You have Kamala Harris, we’re very proud of her, you don’t need anybody else,’ is insulting.”
The move by the two senators comes a week after a series of shootings in the Atlanta area that killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, and amid a national uptick of violence against Asian Americans. The events have set off long-standing frustrations among the AAPI community that their voices and concerns were being ignored. Hirono told CNN that she also told the White House she would like “to see, in a consistent way, the AAPI community being polled” when it’s testing out various policies among different demographics.
The ultimatum is the latest case of Democratic senators publicly using the individual leverage that comes with a 50-50 Senate. Until there’s a resolution, Duckworth and Hirono’s position puts the confirmations of straight white nominees who can’t win Republican support on hold—or dooms them. That means the nomination of Colin Kahl for undersecretary of defense for policy, who’s come under conservative criticism for both a Tanden-esque tweeting history and his Middle East policy views, might be toast.
In fact, that’s a position that Duckworth is already looking at for one that Biden could fill with an AAPI nominee.
“They got an assistant secretary of defense for policy coming up,” she said. “I already told them I’m going to be a no on that.” In addition to that or OMB, she mentioned the Federal Communications Commission—or, she said, the White House “could make a commitment for a future Cabinet secretary, an actual Cabinet secretary.”
“But they need to, at this point, after six months I’ve been giving them names of people, many well-qualified AAPIs who never even got a phone call,” Duckworth said. “At this point, they can call me and tell me what the proposal is.”