Becerra’s Nomination as HHS Secretary Continues to Draw Fire

More than 40 prominent pro-life leaders sent a letter to the U.S. Senate last week, urging the rejection of President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee in light of Becerra’s ‘anti-life, anti-religion’ biases.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has been nominated by Biden to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services, speaks as President-elect Joe Biden (R) and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris (L) look on as Biden announces his team tasked with dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware on December 8, 2020.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has been nominated by Biden to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services, speaks as President-elect Joe Biden (R) and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris (L) look on as Biden announces his team tasked with dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware on December 8, 2020. (photo: Jim Watson / AFP/Getty)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Marking his administration’s close ties to California’s progressive, Democratic-controlled power structure, President-elect Joseph Biden announced that he will nominate Xavier Becerra, the state’s combative attorney general who succeeded now Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in that position, to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). 

And while Biden lauded Becerra, who has no experience in the health-care sector, as a “world-class expert” who will help the United States “heal as a nation,” party lawmakers and activists noted the nominee’s strong record on expanding access to health care and securing unrestricted access to abortion, policies close to the heart of the Democratic base. 

Xavier Becerra “has led the fight against the Trump administration’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has pressed Biden to pick Latinos for his cabinet. 

“As the Latino community has been devastated by COVID-19, Attorney General Becerra has worked to make sure all Americans get the health-care coverage they deserve, Castro added.”

“We know that personnel is policy,” Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood, told Newsweek in an interview that discussed her organization’s collaborative work with the Biden team. “So we’re making sure that those positions are filled with sexual and reproductive health champions.” 

Pro-life and pro-family groups, for their part, expressed shock and dismay at the selection of Becerra, who is Catholic, for the critical cabinet post.

 “On Nov. 7, Joe Biden claimed victory in the presidential race, saying ‘We must stop treating our opponents as our enemy,’” Jonathan Keller, president of the California Family Council told the Register. “But Mr. Becerra is a radical ideologue who rejects First Amendment protections for religious organizations, even earning a rebuke from the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s hard to see how nominating such an activist is consistent with Mr. Biden’s pledge to be a president for all Americans.”

Given his controversial record, Becerra could face difficulties garnering sufficient votes in the U.S. Senate for his confirmation, and the outcome could hinge on the two Georgia Senate run-off elections on Jan. 5, which will determine which party controls the Senate.

On Dec. 21, more that 40 prominent pro-life leaders sent a joint letter to the Senate, urging it to reject Becerra’s nomination in light of his activist political record.

“Mr. Becerra has consistently used the power of his office to attack people who think differently than him and to advance the interests of the abortion lobby when he had the authority to do so,” the letter stated.

“His bias for anti-life, anti-religion policy is apparent, and he should be rejected to serve as a national department head,” it added.


Becerra’s Background

Becerra, who pronounces his first name as “Javier,” was the first in his family to attend college. His mother, Maria Teresa, was born and raised in Mexico. His father, Manuel, was born in Sacramento, where the couple settled to raise Xavier and his three sisters. 

After earning his law degree from Stanford in 1984, Becerra worked briefly as an administrative assistant to a state senator, and then for three years as a deputy attorney general in the civil division before winning a California Assembly seat. He and his wife, Carolina Reyes, have three daughters. Reyes is a perinatologist — a high-risk pregnancy specialist.

Before his appointment to the office of California’s attorney general, Becerra, 62, served in the California State Assembly for two years and in the U.S. House of Representatives for 24 years, representing solidly Democrat Los Angeles districts. On his first day in Congress, he co-sponsored the Freedom of Choice Act, which would write Roe vs. Wade’s regime of unfettered access to abortion into federal law. 

Becerra went on to co-sponsor bills that would require federal funding of abortion, require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to conduct and fund embryo-destructive research, and prohibit federally-funded foster and adoption agencies from taking the gender identity or marital status of prospective parents into account when choosing homes for children. He also co-sponsored the Equality Act, which would redefine the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity among protected classifications.

Conversely, he opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. DOMA passed with strong bipartisan support in 1996.


Self-Described ‘Pit Bull’

Becerra “stays relentlessly on message in public as an amplifier of Democratic Party positions,” The Sacramento Bee reported in 2016 when California’s then-Gov. Jerry Brown announced Becerra’s nomination as state attorney general, following Kamala Harris’ election to the U.S. Senate. 

The Democrat super-majorities in both the California state senate and assembly assured Becerra’s confirmation, but some in his party were afraid he would not be aggressive enough in his challenges to the incoming Trump administration, and his responses to their probing questions illuminated his ideological priorities. 

During the confirmation hearing, Becerra presented himself as a “pit bull,” who wanted “to go on the offence” when it came to expanding abortion and restricting religious liberty, among other issues. 

Reflecting back on his long tenure in the U.S. Congress, Becerra regretted the difficulty of passing legislation in a divided Washington and looked forward to working in California’s one-party system. 

“I will do what I need to do to keep this state moving forward,” he said. “What we do in California ultimately is done by most of the country. Where California goes, so goes the nation.”

He confirmed his belief that First Amendment religious freedom protections exist only for individuals, not for faith-based organizations. Likewise, he vowed to “fight” for abortion and attacked laws limiting it as “outrageous.” 

As California’s attorney general, Becerra made headlines when his battle with pro-life pregnancy clinics over California’s FACT Act, which required the clinics to advertise state-funded abortions, went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018. The Supreme Court sided with the clinics and struck down the law. 

Becerra has also gained notoriety for his legal prosecution of the Little Sisters of the Poor. After the Sisters’ Supreme Court victory granted them an exemption from the Obamacare contraceptive mandate, Becerra, as California’s attorney general, filed a lawsuit seeking the removal of the religious exemption for the Little Sisters and other religious non-profits. 

Mary FioRito, the Cardinal Francis George fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said it is “bizarre” that the self-identified Catholic Biden would appoint a man who “made a name for himself going after the Little Sisters.”

“Becerra was endorsed by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund,” said FioRito. “In order to receive that endorsement, it’s about as extreme as it gets. So Becerra is a supporter for abortion through all nine months.” 

As California’s attorney general, Becerra has filed more than 100 lawsuits against the federal government concerning contraception, immigration, health-care reforms, gun rights, environmental regulations and more. He also continued prosecutions begun by his predecessor, Kamala Harris, including pursuing felony charges against David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, the undercover investigators who exposed Planned Parenthood’s practice of harvesting and selling aborted baby body parts.


Lack of Qualifications?

Beyond the widespread concerns about his highly partisan record on abortion and conscience rights protections, GOP lawmakers expressed concern about Becerra’s lack of professional qualifications and executive experience for leading HHS, especially during a pandemic that has put enormous strain on the federal government.

“I just don’t know what expertise he has in health care,” Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., a physician, told the Los Angeles Times, when asked to comment on Becerra’s nomination. 

HHS oversees several federal health agencies, including the Center for Disease Control, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health, as well as programs for children, seniors and refugee resettlement. It has an annual budget of $1.2 trillion — almost twice that of the Department of Defense. 

At the same time, FioRito and other Catholic policy analysts worry about the threat his appointment will likely pose to Catholic healthcare and social services.

“[O]ur health-care services operate by certain principles — we don’t do abortions, we don’t do sterilizations, we don’t participate in euthanasia,” FioRito said. “In our social services, like adoption, we don’t place children with same-sex couples. 

“To have a man whose beliefs and values are so diametrically opposed to much of what the Catholic Church stands for is troubling. The Church, which has 200 years of experience here in running hospitals and running social service agencies, caring for the poor, [has] a lot to lose here.”

But some in Catholic health care cite Becerra’s experience defending Obamacare as a strong qualification for the job. Sister of Mercy Mary Haddad, president of the Catholic Health Association, an industry lobby representing Church-affiliated hospitals and nursing homes, released a statement saying that she was “encouraged” by Biden’s selection of Becerra, describing him as “a strong partner with CHA in defending the Affordable Care Act and for advocating for greater access to quality, affordable health care coverage.” 

CHA did not respond to questions concerning Becerra’s record on abortion. Under Sister Mary’s predecessor, Sister of Charity Carol Keehan, CHA broke with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to provide crucial support for the rocky passage of the ACA, and later dismissed claims that the health law was effectively underwriting taxpayer funded abortions.

Becerra’s supporters back home in the Golden State have also lauded his efforts to challenge the powerful health-care sector. He sued and won a settlement from the Northern California Sutter Health hospital system for alleged monopolistic behavior and other abuses that drove up health-care prices. 

In 2018, Becerra established a Bureau of Environmental Justice within the California Department of Justice “to protect people and communities that endure a disproportionate share of environmental pollution and public health hazards,” according to the press release announcing it.


Weldon Amendment Violations

During his tenure as attorney general, however, HHS also found California to be in violation of the Weldon Amendment, a federal law that prohibits federal funds from going to states that force health-care entities and insurers to provide or pay for abortions. After HHS issued its ruling, Becerra released a defiant statement: “California has the sovereign right to protect women’s reproductive rights. Political grandstanding should never interfere with that,” he said. “In California, we will continue to protect our families’ access to healthcare, including women’s constitutional right to abortion.”

On Dec. 16, HHS announced that it would enforce the Weldon Amendment against California and strip the state of federal funding.

But with a Biden administration poised to reframe HHS’s approach to conscience rights issues, pro-life activists are worried about what will come next. 

“The abortion lobby is signaling very clearly that simply rolling back Trump administration policy is not all that they want to do,” Melanie Israel, a research associate in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation told the Register. “If we know what great friends people like Kamala Harris and Xavier Becerra have been to them in the past, I think it’s safe to assume that they’re going to have them on speed dial.”

Still, Israel expressed hope that the Trump administration’s efforts to raise awareness of conscience rights could help Catholic and pro-life health-care institutions and workers in the next administration. 

“HHS is supposed to enforce the conscience rights statutes that appear throughout federal law, dozens of them,” Israel said. 

“Now that people are more aware of these conscience rights statutes,” she said, “through the efforts of the Trump Administration, can an administration hostile to conscience rights really put all of that back in the bag?”

Register correspondent Mary Rose Short writes from California.