House Democrats are demanding the Trump administration turn over documents related to its refusal to defend Obamacare in court, in an escalation of the political battle over a case that has put health care at risk for millions.
The chairmen of five House committees sent letters to the White House, Justice Department and top Trump health officials seeking information on the administration’s recent decision to support the health care law’s full elimination in court. They called it a “sudden and significant reversal” that violates the federal government’s longstanding precedent of defending its own laws.
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“The Department owes Congress and the public an explanation as to why it refuses to enforce the law,” the Democrats wrote to Attorney General Bill Barr, who is testifying before a House appropriations subcommittee Tuesday morning.
Their letter seeks the DOJ’s legal justification for declaring Obamacare unconstitutional and internal communications about the case. It also demands that DOJ make four of its attorneys available to testify.
Those signing the letter included Judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler, Oversight chairman Elijah Cummings, Ways and Means chairman Richard Neal, Energy and Commerce chairman Frank Pallone, and Education and Labor chairman Bobby Scott.
The chairmen sent separate letters seeking documents on the Obamacare case to White House counsel Pat Cipollone, to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and CMS Administrator Seema Verma.
An HHS spokesperson confirmed that the department received the letter. The DOJ declined to comment. The White House did not immediately responded to a request for comment.
Barr during his testimony Tuesday bristled at Democrats’ scrutiny of the administration’s legal position.
“When we face a legal question, we try to base our answer on the law,” he said. “If you think it’s such an outrageous position, you have nothing to worry about. Let the courts do their job.”
Barr did not deny reports of a disagreement with the position the administration wound up adopting.
“I’m not going to get into the internal deliberations of the administration on this point. I had ample opportunity to present my views,” the attorney general said.
Pressed about whether he was asserting executive privilege, Barr said brusquely: “Call it what you wish … I’m refusing to discuss it.”
The requests from House Democrats come two weeks after the Trump administration’s surprise decision not to defend Obamacare in a legal challenge launched by 20 GOP-led states. The suit contends that the entire law is invalid because Congress zeroed out its individual mandate penalty. Legal experts across the political spectrum have panned the claims as far-fetched.
DOJ last summer had argued that only the law’s insurance protections should be struck down. After a Texas judge found the entire law invalid in December, the Trump administration shifted its stance to support that ruling, which is now under appeal.
On Tuesday, Nadler called the move a “nakedly political decision.“
“The Judiciary committee will hold those responsible for this complete abdication of the department’s legal duty,” he told reporters. “They are in contempt of the law in the way they are carrying out their intentions.”
The Trump administration’s new legal stance came over the objections of both Barr — whose department is leading the legal charge against Obamacare — and Azar, responsible for overseeing the health law’s implementation. Azar has since said he fully supports the administration’s legal position.
President Donald Trump has cheered the lawsuit, declaring that Republicans will come up with a new health care plan to replace Obamacare soon after the 2020 elections. Democrats have seized on Trump’s revival of health care as a key campaign issue, warning that the GOP would gut insurance protections for pre-existing conditions and jeopardize coverage for 20 million people covered through Obamacare.
“They have never come up, and frankly I don’t think they can come up, with a plan as good as the ACA,” Nadler said.
House Democrats say they need to know whether the administration’s new legal position was influenced by Trump’s newfound desire to make health care a central plank of the 2020 campaign.
“Congress is entitled to understand the communications that took place and pressures that were applied to achieve these troubling results, including whether this decision was in any way related to plan to replace the ACA,” the five Democrats wrote to Cipollone.
Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.