President-elect Joe Biden is planning to make history with his presidential Cabinet. He has already selected the first women to potentially lead the Treasury Department and the nation's intelligence community, and the first African American individuals to serve as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and deputy treasury secretary. Biden's picks to lead both the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services could also mark the first time a Latino leads either of those agencies.
Furthermore, Biden officially announced retired Army General Lloyd Austin as his pick for Defense Secretary. If confirmed, Austin will be the first Black man to lead the Department. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C. 6th District) told Cheddar's Opening Bell that while Austin has "a tremendous reputation" he will face a tough confirmation. That's because Austin will need a waiver to lead the Department of Defense. He left the military almost five years ago, but the law requires Secretaries of Defense to be retired for at least seven years.
A waiver was granted to the former Defense Secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, in 2017. At the time 17 Democratic senators voted against Mattis' waiver. At least two, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) have both signaled they are still against another waiver.
Clyburn is not concerned about the waiver. "An African American as Secretary of Defense at a time where our military is about 40 percent minority, I think, is exactly what we need to do," he said
He also thinks complaints that there is not enough diversity at the upper echelon of the administration are unfounded. The congressman pointed to several other appointees like Rep. Marcia Fudge who will lead Biden's Department of Housing and Urban Development, and said, "if you look at the overall picks now, you will come to the conclusion that he's keeping his promise."
One position still not named is that of Attorney General. Some reports indicate Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) may be one of Biden's top choices, but critics have suggested a person of color should lead the Justice Department at a time when the system has proven to disproportionately impact Black Americans.
Clyburn supports Jones as the presumptive AG, saying the choice shouldn't be about race. "What's required is for someone who understands what it is to have a judicial system that works for everybody."
Jones has a long history of fighting for civil rights in the south. Perhaps his most notable case was against two members of the KKK who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four Black children. More than 20 people also were injured in the bombing that happened in 1963. While the FBI confirmed the men were responsible shortly after the attack, they weren't convicted until nearly 40 years later, thanks to Jones.
"Decades they walked around free after bombing that church and killing those four Black girls. [Jones] prosecuted them and got them convicted," Clyburn told Cheddar. "You don't have to be Black to do right by Black people."
Before those nominations, though, Congress must deal with the issue of coronavirus relief. "I've got 40 African American mayors of little towns in South Carolina," Rep. Clyburn said. "They need help."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer recently rejected a new relief bill proposal from the White House with a $916 billion price tag. While the bill would offer $600 stimulus checks, it pulled most of that money from unemployment benefits. "I think that Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer would be doing a disservice to these people not to stand up to them and try to get the help that they need," Clyburn said.
Clyburn is also in charge of Biden's inauguration committee, and the event is to be largely virtual, rather than a traditional swearing-in ceremony. He described it as a similar set up to the Democratic National Convention this summer. "We won't have these superspreader events that they've grown used to for the last several months," Rep Clyburn said. "We're going to do it the way the scientists say it should be done."
For those Americans who hoped to witness the historic day, as not only the president, but the first female, first Black, and first South Asian Vice President, is sworn in, the congressman says to turn on the television.
And does he expect President Trump to attend the event? "We could care less whether or not he shows up for the inauguration," said Clyburn.