A picture of Senator Richard J. Durbin
Richard D.
Democrat IL

About Sen. Richard
  • Executive Session

    by Senator Richard J. Durbin

    Posted on 2014-12-15

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    DURBIN. Madam President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Mr. DURBIN. Madam President, I see my friend from Wyoming, who spoke on the floor earlier and is in the Chamber, and I wish to publicly acknowledge--and I hope he will too--that we are friends, but we disagree on the nomination of Dr. Murthy to be the next Surgeon General. I will speak for a few moments about why I support him, and I hope a majority of Members will join me in supporting his nomination.

    This is an indication of what can go wrong in the Senate. We received this nomination from the President of the United States to fill the post of Surgeon General, which was reported from the committee in February of this year. Obviously we are in December. It has been sitting here since February. In fact, the post of Surgeon General has been vacant since July of 2013.

    The Surgeon General is supposed to be one of the leaders in America speaking to issues on public health. Can anyone think of a public health issue we have had to face since February when Dr. Murthy was reported to the floor of the Senate? Perhaps one of the deadliest diseases that has ever been recorded is being fought in west Africa, and we are being asked on a regular basis how we will respond in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control plays a major role in it but, historically, Surgeons General have played a major role when we faced similar public health challenges.

    I can remember coming to the U.S. House of Representatives years ago when President Reagan had been elected, and he had chosen C. Everett Koop to be his Surgeon General. C. Everett Koop was a controversial choice by President Reagan because he had been outspoken on some major political issues. He personally had strong feelings against abortion and had said as much before his nomination, and some other issues. It led many people to believe he was too political for the job and that President Reagan had made the wrong choice. But Koop was chosen. Despite the fact that he had been at least engaged as a medical doctor in discussing political issues, he was chosen. I wasn't in the Senate at the time; I didn't have a vote when it came to his choice, but I will tell my colleagues this: When Dr. Koop took over as Surgeon General, he made it clear he understood his obligation was to be the Nation's doctor, not the Nation's leading medical politician. He did some extraordinary things. I don't know what America would have been like if it were not for Dr. Koop's presence, pushing back on a lot of political spin when it came to public health issues--issues involving AIDS, for example.

    It is no secret--it is well known--that many politicians--in both parties, for that matter--were reluctant to go into the whole issue of the AIDS crisis in America for a variety of reasons. But if my colleagues will remember, history shows that under Dr. Koop, we ended up mailing every household in America to let them know about the danger of the AIDS epidemic. That was an extraordinary act of public leadership when it came to public health, and Dr. Koop was Surgeon General when that occurred. So those who worried that C. Everett Koop was too political for the job were disabused of that notion as we watched his service to our country.

    I make that point because I don't want the same mistake to be made in criticizing Dr. Vivek Murthy whom we are going to vote on later today to be our next Surgeon General. It is true that he has engaged in political activity, as any American citizen is entitled to. I hope that will not disqualify him. When I read in a few moments the groups that are supporting him, people will understand he isn't in this position of being nominated simply because of his political activity. He has extraordinary backing of individuals in the medical profession.

    Now we need him more than ever. We need to fill the post of Surgeon General of the United States of America. We hope we can see an end to the Ebola epidemic, but we are not quite there. But we ought to have a Surgeon General in the United States of America. To think we have waited since February while this doctor's name has been on our calendar, and we had to use some extraordinary parliamentary moves to even bring his name up for a vote. I think it is time for us to vote and it is time for us to confirm the nomination of Vivek Murthy as our next Surgeon General.

    This past year, Americans have battled public health crises on all fronts. Here at home, parents watched while a severe strain of enterovirus spread from State to State, threatening young children. My home State of Illinois was one of the hardest hit. I heard from doctors across the State that the minute they discharged one child with respiratory symptoms from the emergency room, another came in.

    Abroad, we still face the worst Ebola epidemic in history. With over 6,300 deaths and many more diagnosed with this devastating disease, now more than ever America needs to fill the spot of top doctor. It has been vacant since July--since July of last year. Dr. Murthy is that doctor, and I am proud to vote for him as the next U.S. Surgeon General. I am hoping my colleagues will join me.

    Let me tell my colleagues a little bit about his background. Dr. Murthy is an attending physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital and an instructor at the Harvard Medical School. Part of what is extraordinary about him is that as well as treating his patients individually, he also thinks about the systemic issues affecting the health of patients and tackles those as well. He is a leading voice in public health, publishing his research on the participation of women and minorities in cancer clinical trials and top journals, including Science, Journal of the American Medical Association, and Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

    Critics of Dr. Murthy who say he is not up to the job should look at the literature. He has published in medical research areas of great importance. He also cofounded and chairs the Trial Networks, a software company that helps clinical researchers collaborate more effectively and efficiently with drug developers to speed up drug discovery.

    In 2011, Dr. Murthy was appointed to the Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health. Over 100 national, State, and local public health organizations have endorsed his nomination. They describe him as ``a well-qualified, forward-thinking, innovative leader with a strong commitment to public health.'' Does that sound like a political hack when 100 organizations say that about this doctor? The organizations that support Dr. Murthy include the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the American Hospital Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the list goes on from there.

    [[Page S6826]] In his confirmation hearing before the Senate HELP Committee last February, Dr. Murthy stated that, if confirmed, he would prioritize his efforts on obesity and tobacco-related disease and ``make prevention and health promotion the backbone of our communities.'' This is a priority I share with Dr. Murthy. For the past 30 years, serving in the House and Senate, I have worked on the issue of tobacco and public policy. I have worked to reduce youth smoking, implement programs to help people quit, and rein in the most insidious practices of the tobacco industry. Moreover, as a cochair of the Senate Hunger Caucus, I have become familiar with the complex and arguably unjust way food is distributed and consumed in America, leaving communities-- including many in Illinois--simultaneously facing high levels of food insecurity and high rates of obesity.

    Obesity and tobacco-related diseases are part of a growing trend of chronic disease that account for 7 out of the top 10 causes of death in America and make up 84 percent of America's health care costs. Dr. Murthy says these are his priorities. They should be. These statistics are unacceptable.

    I believe Dr. Murthy understands the importance of the national crises before him. I feel confident that his experience, his training, and his tenacity have proved that he has the qualifications needed to tackle these issues.

    Not only is Dr. Murthy an outstanding doctor and public health expert, he also remains closely connected to his community and family.

    Dr. Murthy was born to parents who originally were from the southern part of India. He came to the United States at the age of 3 and grew up in Miami, FL. He did very well in school. He was valedictorian of his high school, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in just 3 years, and then got a combined medical and business degree from Yale.

    So Senators come to the floor and question this man's resume, his ability? For goodness sakes. He has an extraordinary background and that is why the President nominated him.

    From a very early age, Dr. Murthy did not set out to make money, he set out to make a difference. In 1995 he cofounded Visions Worldwide, a nonprofit organization that conducts and supports HIV/AIDS education and empowerment programs in India. Until 2003, he served as the president of that organization and then board chair. He is a dedicated uncle and friend, consistently described by those who know him as humble, soft-spoken, and tireless. I know the Indian-American community across this Nation is so proud of Dr. Murthy's accomplishments, as all of us should be.

    Many years ago I worked for a State Senator in Illinois named Cecil Partee. Cecil Partee used to say, For every political controversy, when you listen to the arguments, understand there is a good reason and a real reason.

    What is the real reason for the opposition to Dr. Murthy? It may have come down to just one thing he said. It was alluded to by the Senator from Wyoming earlier. In an online post, he said he believed gun violence was a public health issue. Gun violence, a public health issue. For making that statement, he has been pilloried and excoriated by the gun lobby, and that may be a major reason why his nomination is controversial.

    I am proud to represent the city of Chicago and the State of Illinois. Gun violence is a public health problem. Go into the emergency rooms--and I can give the names of the list of hospitals in Chicago to start with. Go to the emergency room on Friday or Saturday night and you tell me that gun violence isn't a public health issue. In those emergency rooms we see the victims of gun violence, many of them fighting for their lives. If we go to Mount Sinai Hospital in the Englewood section of Chicago, we can look across the street to a rehab institute. Those who have survived gun violence at Mount Sinai go across the street to the Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and learn how to live a life as a paraplegic or a quadriplegic. Does that have anything to do with public health? It certainly does. Gun violence is a public health issue, no apology necessary.

    I think Dr. Murthy, as has Dr. Koop, has made it clear they are not aspiring to be the leading doctor in America to engage in a political debate, but rather to engage in public health debates about obesity and tobacco and things that make a dramatic difference to the lives of so many people who live in this country.

    I am supporting Dr. Murthy. I think he will be an extraordinary Surgeon General. I am sorry he and America have had to wait so long for this vote. I hope the majority of my colleagues will step up and support his nomination as well. At this time of challenge when it comes to public health issues, we need his leadership. We need his expertise. We need a person of this quality as Surgeon General of the United States.

    I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

    The assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.

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