“Transparency builds trust, especially in times of crisis.” This statement from the state Office of Open Records last year encouraged state agencies to pursue transparency with the public, particularly during COVID-19.
Unfortunately, instead of transparency, Pennsylvanians were met with secrecy as Gov. Tom Wolf closed agency transparency offices and threatened to veto transparency legislation passed unanimously by the General Assembly.
As concerning as this is, recently things took an even more shocking turn.
In late April, Wolf abruptly withdrew all his nominations to lead several state agencies that have been at the forefront of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 response. This includes his nominations to head the Department of Health, Department of Human Services, Department of Labor & Industry, and Department of Education.
Practically speaking, this means these key agencies will be without Senate-confirmed leadership indefinitely – perhaps as long as the remainder of Wolf’s tenure as governor, or until 2023.
More concerning, however, is the implication of Wolf’s actions, which effectively shield the acting heads of these departments, appointed by Wolf, from facing the tough but critically important questions that they would face during Senate confirmation hearings.
Imagine if our U.S. Supreme Court justices were never subjected to confirmation hearings and votes but instead were simply named to the bench by the president.
Americans across the political spectrum would cry foul, and rightfully so. That’s because we all understand that the Senate confirmation process is a critical part of our system of government and key to transparency
Yet, Gov. Wolf is seeking to insulate his appointed agency heads from this process, helping them avoid questions like:
• How would they ensure the state’s unemployment office meets the needs of Pennsylvanians?
• How would they oversee the emergency food assistance program that the Wolf administration has cited as a reason for him to retain his unilateral emergency powers?
• How would they provide guidance to schools as they work to safely reopen?
• How would they provide nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and other vulnerable populations the continued support needed to safely navigate and emerge from the COIVD pandemic?
• How would they ensure the recent data breach, in which a Department of Health vendor leaked the private information of 72,000 Pennsylvanians, never happens again?
• What have they learned from this past year’s mistakes, and how would they work to correct them moving forward?
The list goes on and on.
All of this raises the question of what Gov. Wolf might be afraid of.
Is he concerned tough questions might uncover things he doesn’t want the public to know? Is he seeking to prevent the people’s elected representatives in the Legislature from exercising any oversight of these key agencies? Is he hoping to stop the public from learning how his agency heads would lead during crises?
Whatever the reason, the result is the same: By withdrawing his nominations and forcing the cancelation of Senate confirmation hearings, Wolf has all but guaranteed the acting leaders of these key agencies will not face critical questions or have their qualifications vetted.
Beyond our COVID-19 response, Wolf’s decision to withdraw all nominations also impacts our Department of State, which is responsible for overseeing our elections. Wolf’s previous Secretary of State, Kathy Boockvar, was forced to resign earlier this year after her department failed to advertise a proposed constitutional amendment to aid victims of sex abuse, derailing the amendment.
A Senate confirmation hearing for Wolf’s appointee to replace Boockvar would have undoubtedly included important questions on how the new agency secretary would ensure such a mistake does not happen again.
Now, Pennsylvanians might never get a chance to have this question answered.
Transparency does, indeed, build trust. By shielding his appointees from Senate confirmation hearings, Wolf, unfortunately, is doing just the opposite.