Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday offered lawmakers an unemotional and technical defense of the Justice Department’s efforts to strike down the Affordable Care Act, stating that it was his job as the country’s top lawyer to argue the case but refusing to comment on whether it was smart policy.
“I’m a lawyer. I’m not in charge of health care,” Barr told members of the House Appropriations Committee, as Democrats said the Trump administration’s position in a lawsuit risked depriving millions of Americans of their health insurance coverage and sharply raising the price of premiums for tens of millions more.
Rep. Matthew Cartwright, D-Pennsylvania, drove the demand for a reckoning from Barr, calling his decision to argue the case “breathtaking” and “unbelievable” for “its recklessness and its lack of legal justification.”
“I can’t imagine that you would take that kind of a dramatic, drastic action without even trying to evaluate the consequences for the American consumers, the people using the health care,” he added.
But Barr largely shrugged off Democrats’ policy concerns, stressing that his determination was based simply on whether the administration had a “defensible and reasonable legal position.”
“If this was such a hokey position to take, what are you worried about?” Barr asked the Democratic lawmakers, under questioning from Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Florida. “You say that the administration’s position is hokey and then you say the sky is falling?”
The Trump administration last month announced its decision to not defend the Affordable Care Act and instead lend support to a lawsuit from 20 Republican-led states seeking a full repeal of the 2010 statute. But the decision came after a sharp internal debate over whether doing so was a smart idea, with Barr and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar arguing against the effort to rip up the law.
Barr refused to detail his conversations about the health care suit with members of the Trump administration, stating only that he “had ample opportunity to present my views, and I believe that the final decision reached is a legally defensible and reasonable legal position.”
“Call it what you wish,” Barr said after Democrats accused him of asserting executive privilege in refusing to summarize his conversations. “I’m not discussing it.”
Some Democrats took that as a sign that Barr had no confidence in the Trump administration’s case.
“It is clear that he doesn’t expect the position of the Department of Justice to prevail,” Cartwright told reporters after the hearing, adding that “in part that heartened me, in part that dismayed me.”
“I was dismayed because we have the Justice Department spending money that we appropriate pushing a lawsuit that they know is just going through the motions … to satisfy certain political elements,” Cartwright explained.
But other Democrats are more worried that Trump’s turn to the courts marks a troubling trend.
“Let’s not kid ourselves … the president is of the opinion that if there is a major dispute on a lot of subjects, that he will have the courts backing him up, period,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, said. “He feels comfortable that the court will make decisions in his favor.”
Barr refused to entertain Democrats’ charges that the lawsuit would eviscerate health care protections, arguing that the administration was “very worried” about Americans’ health coverage.
“The president’s made clear that he wants strong health care legislation and he wants to protect preexisting conditions, in the event that the court accepts the legal arguments we’ve presented,” he said.
Barr guessed that the Supreme Court might phase out the existing health care law over time to give Congress a chance to come up with a replacement.
But congressional Republicans are not eager to have the issue fall back into their laps. Since the administration announced its stance on the health care lawsuit, President Donald Trump announced and walked back plans to propose a replacement health care law, after congressional Republican leaders urged him to steer clear of the matter.
White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney nonetheless revived such plans this weekend, pledging that the White House would soon unveil a new health care plan.