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May 21, 2019

Vox: Ben Carson’s first hearing before Maxine Waters’s committee was a disaster

On Tuesday, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson testified before Rep. Maxine Waters’s (D-CA) Financial Services Committee for the first time since Waters became the chair in January. His performance did not go well.

Carson — a former brain surgeon and Republican presidential candidate whom President Donald Trump nominated as his HUD secretary in 2017 despite his complete lack of relevant experience — tried to defend a budget proposal that would cut 16.4 percent from HUD’s budget. He was also questioned about a plan HUD announced last year to impose rent increases of as much as 150 percent on people who live in subsidized housing.

But in trying to explain these proposals, Carson demonstrated a shocking level of condescension toward members of Congress, as well as a lack of familiarity with basic housing terminology.

During an exchange with Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), Carson revealed that he’s unfamiliar with a common acronym used to described foreclosed properties — REO, which stands for real-estate owned.

“Do you know what an REO is?” Porter asked.

“An Oreo?” Carson replied, apparently thinking of cookies.

After Porter patiently set him straight, Carson offered to get her in touch with “people who do that” (deal with foreclosed properties) at HUD, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Porter, before she ran for Congress, was California’s independent monitor of banks in a nationwide $25 billion mortgage settlement.

“Respectfully, that was my day job before I came to Congress,” Porter told him. “I spent a decade working with the people at HUD on this problem.”

Porter later posted video of the exchange on Twitter.

In another memorable exchange, Carson refused to answer Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s (D-MA) straightforward questions about the implications of HUD’s proposed budget cuts.

“Yes or no — is stable and safe housing a social determinant of health?” Pressley asked.

“Sounds like you have not been here and heard most of my testimony,” Carson said.

“Please just answer the question, reclaiming my time,” Pressley replied. “Yes or no — is stable and safe housing a social determinant of health?”

“Ah, there is no question that housing is an important part of health,” Carson said, still dodging. Instead of answering questions, he tried to turn the tables by expressing frustration that Pressley was glancing down at prepared notes and told her to “ask me some questions yourself and stop reading.”

At one point during the grilling, Carson told Pressley that he was “reclaiming my time.” But as Pressley pointed out to him, witnesses at hearings “don’t get to do that.”

Waters, the committee chair, also ripped into Carson, characterizing HUD’s plan to reduce rental assistance as “outrageous” and a separate plan to bar undocumented immigrants from subsidized housing as “cruel.”

“The department is actively causing harm,” Waters told him. Carson replied by telling her that HUD’s goal is to “come up with better, more efficient ways so we don’t leave people in a situation where they become dependent.”

During an exchange with Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), Carson deflected a question about whether HUD had considered the fate of tens of thousands of children who would be made homeless by the undocumented immigrants proposal, telling her, “Maybe what will happen is you and Congress will do your job and solve the problem.”

After the hearing, Carson tried to poke fun at his ignorance on Twitter.

Carson’s performance was reminiscent of how another top Trump official, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, comported himself during a hearing before Waters’s committee last month. On that occasion, an exasperated Mnuchin — apparently worried about missing an “important meeting” — told Waters to “please dismiss everybody. I believe you are supposed to take the gravel [sic] and bang it.”

“Please do not instruct me as to how I am to conduct this committee,” Waters responded, in an exchange that quickly went viral.