Califf clears Senate H.E.L.P. Committee, while Esteban is stuck in Agriculture

Califf clears Senate H.E.L.P. Committee, while Esteban is stuck in Agriculture

by Sue Jones
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The FDA Commissioner and USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety are the top officials charged with keeping food safe for Americans.

More than 60 days ago, President Biden nominated Robert Califf as FDA Commissioner and Jose Emilio Esteban as USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety.

Califf and Esteban require Senate confirmation before they can assume their Presidential appointments. Califf, who was FDA Commissioner under President Obama, made progress Thursday with a 13-8 favorable vote by the Senate “HELP” Committee.

It sets Califf up for a confirmation vote by the full Senate. If confirmed, Califf will become Biden’s first permanent FDA Commissioner. Acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock is serving as FDA’s temporary boss.

Socialist Bernie Sanders, Democrat Maggie Hassan, and six Republicans voted against Califf in the committee vote. Califf is a cardiologist who experienced bipartisan support on his first outing, but there were concerns about ties to the drug industry this time.

Before Thursday’s vote, however, Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA, announced that Califf passed the required ethics review with no findings of any conflicts of interest.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on Califf’s nomination on Dec. 14 but did not vote on the nomination.

Esteban’s appointment as USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety is moving slower. His nomination came on Nov. 12, 2021, about 10 days after Califf’s.

His appointment was referred to the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee on Nov. 15, 2021. The past 60 days have passed without a hearing or votes on the Esteban nomination.

At the beginning of every new presidential term, there are about 4,000 politically appointed jobs to fill in executive and independent agencies. According to the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, more than 1,200 appointments require Senate confirmation.

The WP/Partnership tracks “nominees for roughly 800 of those 1,200 positions, including Cabinet secretaries, chief financial officers, general counsels, ambassadors, and other critical leadership positions.”

The tracking in mid-December found President Joe Biden’s total confirmations has jumped a bit ahead of former President Donald Trump’s, but remained lower than President Barack Obama’s and President George W. Bush’s at this point in their presidencies. In other words, the Trump/Biden era is slower going for nominations than the two previous administrations.

After almost one year in office, Biden has not nominated anyone to fill 146 of 798 tracked jobs. Seven picks are awaiting formal nomination.

And 183 nominees, like Califf and Esteban, are held up in the Senate process. The Senate has confirmed 268 of Biden’s nominees, who are available to help the president run the government.

During the first 11 months of Trump’s presidency, 238 nominees had achieved Senate confirmation.

Robert Califf
The Senate last confirmed Califf as FDA Commissioner on an 89-to-4 vote in February 2016. The cardiologist served as FDA Commissioner during the final months of the Obama presidency.

The opioid epidemic was a dominant issue during his tenure. Califf favored permitting drug companies to advertise more about their products.

After leaving the government, Califf joined Verily Life Sciences.

He’s served as vice chancellor for clinical and translational health at Duke University. Califf remains an adjunct professor of medicine at Duke and Stanford University and serves on the corporate board of biopharmaceutical company Cytokinetics.

When he announced the nomination, Biden called Califf “one of the most experienced clinical trialists in the country, and has the experience to lead the [FDA] during a critical time in our nation’s fight to put an end to the coronavirus pandemic.” 

Jose Emilio Esteban
As FSIS Chief Scientist, Esteban would provide scientific advice to support agency policies, including microbiology, chemistry, and pathology. 

It is his fourth position within FSIS, all within the Office of Public Health Science. Before his current assignment, he was Executive Associate for Laboratory Services, the Scientific Advisor for Laboratory Services and Research Coordination, and the Laboratory Director for the Western Laboratory.

 Before joining USDA, he worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer, Staff Epidemiologist, and Assistant Director of the Food Safety Office.

Outside the U.S. federal government, Esteban is also the Chair of the Codex Alimentarius Commission Committee on Food Hygiene. This committee sets definitions for international food hygiene standards for international trade. He is also currently vice president of the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP). 

Esteban was trained as a veterinarian in Mexico and supplemented his training with an MBA, a master’s degree in Preventive Veterinary Medicine, and a Ph.D. in Epidemiology from the University of California-Davis.

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