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A Democratic Senator Weighs In On Trump's Emerging Cabinet

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now that President-elect Donald Trump has nominated some of his choices for cabinet positions, the Senate is going to start vetting them. And there are growing signs Senate Democrats are not planning to make that process an easy one for a number of Trump's picks. That includes yesterday's announcement of Dr. Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Among those speaking out is Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon. He serves on the Senate Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. And he joins us in the studio now. Senator, thanks for coming in.

JEFF MERKLEY: You're welcome. It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: You say Dr. Ben Carson is not a good pick to lead HUD. Why not?

MERKLEY: Well, it's very disappointing because the challenge we have in affordable housing is central to the quality of life of millions of Americans. And so you want someone to lead a very complex set of housing programs, who has a history in those programs, who understands them, who might be able to improve how they're administered.

But in this case, Ben Carson is somebody who has absolutely no background in this area, who has cast doubt on the need to address discrimination in housing, who didn't particularly address this during his presidential campaign and said, when it came to Health and Human Services, he didn't have the experience to run a large organization. And certainly this is a large organization in the housing world.

MARTIN: We spoke with one of his close advisers and friends yesterday who said he wanted to clarify, saying, you know, Dr. Carson was - was reticent at first, but he said after being urged by Donald Trump to take the job, he decided that he would serve. And he has pointed directly to his experience growing up in inner city Detroit and later working as a doctor with patients from the inner city. He considers that preparation for the role. Can you see a scenario in which an outsider like Dr. Ben Carson can come into this big bureaucracy and make positive changes?

MERKLEY: Well, certainly that's what we're going to have a hearing. And he'll have a chance to present his case, and I'll be very interested in what he has to say. But there is a lot that goes on in the housing world. Often, the housing programs get - become basically dedicated to for-profit developers. And we're going to have a for-profit developer who is our president. What about really dedicating the effort to low-income families who are not low income, as Ben Carson has indicated, because they don't work hard.

They're often working two or three jobs, trying to combine low-wage jobs that have conflicting schedules. They're working day and night. And the vacancy rates make it so rents are very, very high. I'm not sure that he really brings any insight to this challenge. From everything he has said so far, he thinks people are poor because it's their own - own fault, not the lack of living-wage jobs and - and affordable apartments or the ability to buy a home.

MARTIN: He has suggested that he wants to see more of an effort by private citizens and charities, churches in particular, to play a larger role in meeting some of these needs. What are your thoughts on that?

MERKLEY: Right now, we have an incredible crisis in housing across our country. In my home state of Oregon, you can go to a major city, and you can see tent cities springing up on highway cloverleafs and underpasses and parks. You can see that here in the nation's capital, here in Washington, D.C. You can see it across the country that - as we've lost living-wage jobs and as rents have gone up. This makes this a critical, critical area. It's not an area to say simply the market will take care of this. If the market would take care of it, we wouldn't have this problem of people being forced to live in tents on cloverleafs.

MARTIN: There have been reports that Senate Democrats are considering giving Trump's cabinet appointments the, quote, "Garland treatment," right, referring to how Senate Republicans have delayed President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. Might you slow-roll these nominations for - for political purposes?

MERKLEY: Well, it certainly won't be the Merrick Garland treatment. He didn't get any hearing in committees, and we - everyone will get hearings. The Senate is controlled by the Republican majority. They have the ability to put these nominations on the floor quickly. They have the ability by simple majority to approve them. That is a change that we made in 2013 to stop the stonewalling, kind of the partisan attacks on - on the executive branch and the judiciary.

And so we won't see that. But I think, in terms of a thorough vetting of, is a person qualified, that is our assignment under advice and consent in the Constitution - to determine, as Hamilton said, is an individual of fit quality or unfit quality. And that's - that's the question we should address.

MARTIN: Senator Jeff Merkley from Oregon. Senator, thanks so much for coming in.

MERKLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.