Jacobs: More delay in North Dakotan's confirmation

GRAND FORKS The highest ranking North Dakotan in the Obama administration is ensnared in the Senate's confirmation process. She is Mary Wakefield. President Obama named her deputy secretary of Health and Human Services more than a year ago. A hea...

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The highest ranking North Dakotan in the Obama administration is ensnared in the Senate's confirmation process.

She is Mary Wakefield. President Obama named her deputy secretary of Health and Human Services more than a year ago. A hearing on her confirmation was held more than six months ago.

As yet, there has been no confirmation vote.

It's the longest delay ever between appointment and confirmation for the position.


Wakefield's role in the administration began in February 2009, when the president named her director of the department's largest single agency, Health Resources and Services Administration. That appointment - and relatively speedy confirmation - made her the ranking North Dakotan in the administration.

She left Grand Forks to take that job. At the University of North Dakota, she had been associate dean for rural health at the School of Medicine. She also served as director of UND's Center for Rural Health.

Wakefield was born in Devils Lake, a member of a large and prominent family, operators of Wakefield Flight Service. Not all the Wakefields became pilots, but I have nevertheless always thought of the family as "The Flying Wakefields."

I spent many hours in Wakefield planes back in the days when Prairie Public Television produced a weekly program of journalists reflecting on the news. A small plane would leave Devils Lake with Jack Zaleski, now editorial page editor at The Forum newspaper in Fargo but then the editor of the Devils Lake Journal, land in Grand Forks to pick me up, and then deliver us to Fargo or sometimes to Bismarck.

I generally sat in the seat next to the pilot. We had some in-flight adventures, once precipitously losing altitude. The sudden drop scared the journalists. When we landed in Fargo, Tommy Wakefield, the pilot, looked at me and said, "Cheated death one more time."

Mary Wakefield has always demonstrated that same kind of confidence and competence.

I first met her when she was chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick. We cynical journalists often joked that she got the job because Burdick - an old man already - wanted a nurse in the office. She filled the same role for Sen. Kent Conrad, though, and he didn't need a nurse in the office. He needed a competent assistant to keep up with the business he generated.

Wakefield left Conrad's office in 1996, becoming director of the Center for Health Policy, Research and Ethics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She took the job at UND in 2002.


Wakefield worked for Democrats, and she was active in the North Dakota Democratic Party. That doesn't disqualify her, of course. Democratic Party credentials are expected of Democratic presidential appointees.

Nor is her appointment delayed because anyone doubts her competence.

Senate custom is that the home state senator introduces a top appointee. Sen. John Hoeven did that for Wakefield, calling her "a dedicated public servant and a hardworking health care advocate."

Hoeven is a Republican.

So is Orrin Hatch of Utah, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which reviewed her appointment. Hatch cited her "impressive background" and said she has "a reputation for being a problem solver."

Nevertheless, Wakefield's confirmation has been stalled - for nearly 13 months - because of an unrelated controversy involving Planned Parenthood. Initially, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, exercised an individual senator's right to "hold" an appointment. That happened in February. In March, other Republicans on the committee raised questions about the so-called "Federal Refusal Clause." This is also known as the Weldon Amendment, after its author, former Florida Rep. Dave Weldon.

The amendment prohibits discrimination against health care providers who don't cover abortion services. It was added to the bills funding several federal departments in 2004, and it's been part of the HHS budget bill ever since.

This is one part of the so-called "religious liberty" movement that's brought other controversies, including services for gays and bathrooms for the transgendered. A protracted fight about the amendment's impact in California was the excuse to delay a confirmation vote. That was settled in June with a finding that HHS had not violated the amendment.


No vote has been set in the committee, much less on the Senate floor.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the senior Democrat on the committee, raised the issue on the Senate floor on July 13, the anniversary of Wakefield's appointment."Delay has turned into obstruction," he said. "A highly qualified nomination is being needlessly blocked, for reasons completely unrelated to her qualifications. ... Regrettably this seems to be one more case where the majority is putting politics ahead of public interest."

So Wakefield's title remains "acting deputy secretary."

I asked Hoeven's office to check with the Finance Committee on the status of the nomination. The answer from the committee: "We're still working on it."

Don Canton, Hoeven's press officer, said his interpretation of that message is, "I don't know if it's going to move."

He pointed out that the Obama administration has only six months to run.

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