House Democrats are demanding Atty. Gen. William Barr hand over documentation behind the Trump administration’s decision not to defend the Affordable Care Act in court — and threatening to use their subpoena power if the administration does not comply.
They also want Russell Vought, the Office of Management and Budget acting director, to sit for an interview about his role in the Justice Department’s decision.
The demands, issued in two letters Monday, come as House Democrats begin to shift their oversight and investigations strategy away from the Mueller report — which could be tied up in court for months — and into one of Republicans’ most politically vulnerable topics: healthcare.
While a key committee had teed up a full House floor vote to hold Barr in contempt of Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week that the House would hold off and might hold several administration officials in contempt at the same time. She did not name any other official.
Democrats hope to combine the political power of the healthcare law — it was a central plank of their campaign to obtain control of the House in 2018 — with their effort to highlight what they call abuses of power by the Trump administration.
In this case, they want documents showing why the Justice Department said it would support a legal effort to invalidate the entire healthcare law, including popular provisions such as protections for people with preexisting conditions.
“It is Congress’ responsibility as an independent and coequal branch of government to understand how this decision was made, including whether the president or anyone in the White House instructed the department to override its legal conclusions and take a position that would result in the loss of health insurance coverage for millions of Americans,” five House committee chairmen wrote in a letter to Barr.
Leaders in 20 conservative states sued the Trump administration in early 2018 over Obamacare, arguing that the law should be struck down because the individual mandate penalty requiring all Americans to have insurance was eliminated as part of the 2017 GOP tax law.
The Justice Department originally said that only parts of the law should be eliminated. But after a U.S. district judge invalidated the entire law, the Justice Department agreed.
The Trump administration’s decision was not unanimous, according to a report in Politico at the time. Vought and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney advocated for the more expansive position, which has been embraced by conservative Republicans. Others, including Barr, reportedly advocated for the more minimal position, given the political vulnerabilities of not having a healthcare replacement on hand and the popularity of the preexisting conditions provision.
The new request to Barr, as well as a similar one to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, marks the second demand House Democrats have made for the material related to the healthcare decision.
The demands come as the House is voting this week on several healthcare measures, including legislation that would undo some of the Trump administration’s regulatory changes to the healthcare law, such as cuts to funding for programs that help people sign up for insurance.
Included in the package of bills is legislation that could result in generic prescription drugs coming to market more quickly.