House Democrats plan investigations blitz over Trump health policies
Democrats are quietly preparing to launch a slew of investigations into the Trump administration’s health care moves if they retake the House in November, aiming to freeze the White House’s efforts to unravel Obamacare and probe the administration’s care of immigrant kids.
The wide-ranging inquiries, coordinated across multiple committees, would focus on the administration’s most controversial actions on health care, which include chipping away at the Affordable Care Act, urging the courts to gut the health law’s protections for pre-existing conditions, and separating migrant families at the border, lawmakers and aides told POLITICO.
Outside groups are also pressing Democrats to look into the health department‘s approvals of new Medicaid work requirements in some states, which have already pushed more than 4,000 low-income people off coverage in Arkansas. The work rules have run into roadblocks in court over questions about whether HHS properly considered their impact.
Democrats, who now own a clear electoral advantage on health care following the GOP’s bungled attempts to repeal Obamacare, hope their oversight efforts will bolster their defense of the newly-popular health care law. At the same time, Democrats aim to prove that they, unlike Republicans, can provide the check on President Donald Trump that polls show voters want.
“We need to restore what is a constitutional responsibility of the Congress: To ensure the administration is working on behalf of the health and safety of the American people,” Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, told POLITICO. “That hasn’t happened over the last 18 to 20 months.”
Party leaders have been reluctant to make concrete plans beyond November’s midterm elections, despite signs that House Democrats stand a good chance of taking power amid a broad backlash to the GOP’s policies and to Trump himself. In interviews, several lawmakers said they didn’t want to “jinx it” by discussing their oversight agenda for next year.
“There has not been a definitive decision about what the priorities would be,” a Democratic leadership aide said. “Everybody’s focused on November.”
Democrats are also warning that even rigorous oversight requires a measured approach. While lawmakers may be tempted to bury the troubled Trump administration in investigations, party leaders say they want their inquiries to be focused on real policy rather than point-scoring — a charge they levied against Republicans during the Obama administration.
Still, Democratic lawmakers and aides are privately sketching out plans to hit the White House and federal health agencies with a barrage of requests for documents and testimony for investigations likely to span the House’s Oversight, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means committees.
If they win the majority and acquire subpoena powers and the ability to set committee agendas, Democrats plan to probe what they see as the administration’s “sabotage of Obamacare.” That includes Republicans’ slashing of outreach efforts and their promotion of skimpier coverage alternatives, amid rhetorical attacks by Trump and the top health officials overseeing the law.
“It’s mainly trying to figure out what they’ve been doing to sabotage the ACA, and what can be done [about it],” said Rep. Frank Pallone, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Another major line of inquiry will focus on the Trump administration’s decision to partially support a lawsuit from Republican attorneys general against Obamacare. The unusual move — the federal government typically defends federal laws against lawsuits — has drawn criticism from some Republicans but hasn’t yet faced congressional scrutiny.
Democrats will also examine HHS’ role as the custodian of thousands of migrant children, including those forcibly separated from their parents by the Trump administration. House Republicans have yet to hold any hearings on the department’s role in their care.
Democrats say there’s much to probe, including the conditions at the HHS-run children detention centers, the impact of the separations on families, and whether federal officials publicly misrepresented the policy. They also want the administration to produce plans for quickly reuniting 136 children who remain separated from their families under the now-defunct border policy.
“We need to find out what went on, who ordered what and when,” Hoyer said of the administration’s immigration mandates. “They seemingly reversed their policy in some respects, but we need to look very carefully at the welfare of the children related to both physical and mental health.”
Some lawmakers are especially eager to grill Scott Lloyd, who heads the health office charged with housing and supervising those children. Lloyd has also drawn fire for personally intervening to prevent unaccompanied minors in the government’s care from obtaining abortions. It’s been almost a year since he last testified on the Hill.
Over the past two years, Republican lawmakers have rejected dozens of Democratic requests for agency documents and hearings on a range of health issues. Democrats also complain that HHS has ignored their requests for information on their policy decisions. Aides say that trail of unanswered requests will be an investigatory “road map” for Democrats if they win back the House.
“The Trump administration has an attitude that, we’re not going to give you anything,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. “And if you get anything, it’s going to be so heavily redacted you might as well have sent a blank newspaper.”
Asked about Cummings’ characterization, HHS spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer said the agency “takes seriously Congress’s role in our nation’s constitutional system of checks and balances” and responds daily to congressional inquiries.
Democrats stressed they want to avoid politically motivated investigations that ultimately yield few major revelations.
“You saw how long Benghazi lasted — on and on, it was a soap opera,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), referring to the half-dozen House GOP probes into the terrorist attack that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans — a years-long investigation Democrats believed was motivated by the GOP’s desire to damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in 2016. “I will not be part of that.”
Democrats also worry that a scorched-earth approach could hamper the chances of passing bipartisan health care legislation, such as a package aimed at lowering prescription drug prices or stabilizing Obamacare’s insurance marketplaces.
With that in mind, Democratic committee leaders said they intend to begin by reaching across the aisle and attempting to work with the administration. But they‘re willing to play hardball if they find themselves stonewalled.
“We only do subpoenas if people don’t cooperate,” Pallone said. “Hopefully, they’ll cooperate.”