Democrats should stand up to NRA and confirm Vivek Murthy

Dr. Vivek Murthy is President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next U.S. surgeon general, but his nomination has been held up in the Senate.
Dr. Vivek Murthy is President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next U.S. surgeon general, but his nomination has been held up in the Senate. The Associated Press

Now that it’s in its final hours, the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate should throw caution to the wind and boldly confirm a physician as surgeon general who had the temerity to say gun violence constitutes a public health issue.

As Republicans prepare to take over, they ought to cooperate by allowing up-or-down votes on 130-plus nominees of President Barack Obama, including ambassadors to 16 nations, and a dozen judgeships.

Judicial nominees include Haywood S. Gilliam Jr., who clearly is qualified to serve as a U.S. District Court judge for the Northern District of California. Gilliam got his law degree at Stanford and spent seven years as an assistant U.S. attorney in San Francisco.

Qualifications, alas, don’t always matter.

Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid angered Republicans earlier this year by invoking what came to be known as the nuclear option, an odd term for describing the end of the rule requiring 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate for virtually any significant piece of business.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell probably will adopt a similar rule when he takes control next month. That’d only be right. The filibuster was undemocratic when Republicans used it to impede Democrats during the first six years of the Obama presidency. Similarly, Democrats should not gum up the works when they are in the minority.

Elections matter, which is why Obama has the right to appoint ambassadors, judges, cabinet secretaries and thousands of other officials, including Dr. Vivek Murthy as surgeon general.

Murthy, 37, was admitted to Harvard when he was 16, went to medical school at Yale, created a nonprofit focused on AIDS, practices at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and teaches at Harvard. He also worked on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and helped found the pro-Obama Doctors for America.

In January 2013, weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School slaughter that left 20 children and six educators dead, Murthy signed a letter urging Congress to take sensible gun-safety steps such as banning semi-automatic rifles; imposing 48-hour waiting periods on gun purchasers; and allowing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fund firearm research.

There were 467,300 instances of gun-related violence and 11,101 gun-related homicides in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics exist. Although numbers have declined from highs 20 years ago, any physician, or person, could conclude that 11,000 deaths related to a common vector are worthy of study.

Obama nominated Murthy as surgeon general in November 2013, and the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee approved his nomination in February.

The NRA sprang into action by declaring that it would take a Murthy vote into account when it decided which senators to target for defeat. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., placed a hold on the nomination, citing Murthy’s work “advancing stricter gun control laws and promoting the Affordable Care Act,” plus his work on Obama’s campaign. So what?

Surely, Paul wouldn’t expect Obama to nominate someone who worked on the campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney, or, for that matter, is working on Paul’s presidential campaign.

Public health advocates, physicians’ groups and gun safety advocates such as the Brady Campaign are pushing for Murthy’s confirmation. They contend a surgeon general could have helped keep the Ebola outbreak in perspective. Perhaps that is true. But that’s only one reason for the Senate to act.

As they prepare to cede control to Republicans, Democrats have nothing to lose by confirming Murthy and plenty to gain, not the least of which is a measure of respect for standing up to the NRA.