This week, Joe Biden appointed California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services. The pick comes amidst a flurry of appointments to the new administration, including a recent announcement of the retention of Dr. Anthony Fauci as chief medical advisor to the President.
Offered the position by phone call on Friday, Becerra will oversee a Department with an annual budget of $1.3 trillion, 80,000 employees, eight agencies, and eleven operating divisions, including the CDC. Since the announcement, Becerra has drawn criticism from Republicans and medical professionals alike. Here are five things you should know about him:
Career and Background
According to an insider, Biden tapped Becerra in part because he was impressed by his personal story. Becerra, in addition to being the first in his family to attend college, with a Bachelors and JD from Stanford University, will also be the first Latino to hold this position.
Becerra served twelve terms in Congress, gaining notoriety as Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a staunch defender of the Affordable Care Act.
In 2017, Becerra was appointed California’s Attorney General after the position was left open following Kamala Harris’ election to the U.S. Senate. It was in this capacity that he led numerous coalitions in suing the Trump administration, particularly on issues surrounding immigration and environmental policy. In August, he proudly put forth his 100th anti-Trump suit.
Not Biden’s First Choice
Becerra was not initially considered a top contender for the HHS position, with sources close to the transition team claiming his name had only been on the table over the last few days of the process. Inititally, Biden reportedly had plans to tap Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo for the position, but she announced in a press conference last Thursday that she would stay on in her current position.
One Biden insider told Politico the decision to pick Becerra was far from cut and dry. “Certainly on this one, they are struggling. They had the person they wanted, and that person isn’t doing it. Are there plenty of qualified people? Yes. Do they have the setup they wanted? No.”
Becerra’s appointment has caused outrage among some medical experts, with many noting that despite his experience in Washington, Becerra has never held a top health policy leadership position. In an open letter to the incoming administration, five major medical associations criticized the choice, urging Biden instead to “appoint qualified physicians to serve in key positions critical to advancing the health of our nation.”
Limited Record of Bipartisanship
In following with Biden’s assurances that his administration would work across party lines, a source close to Biden claims his pick was sealed by Becerra’s history of working with Republicans. Last year, the Attorney General teamed up with Los Angeles leaders on both sides of the aisle in a lawsuit against JUUL for deceptive marketing to minors.
More recently, he led a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general in pressuring the Department of Health and Human Services to broaden access to Remdesivir, which has shown promising results in patients hospitalized with COVID-19. Despite these few examples of cross party cooperation, opposition to Becerra’s appointment has been widespread among Republicans due to some of his more extreme positions.
Controversial Stance on Abortion
Criticism from the right has largely focused on Becerra’s record on abortion. In 2003, he voted against a bill sponsored by former Senator Rick Santorum(R-PA) which sought to ban partial-birth abortion except in cases where the mother’s life was at risk. More recently, he headed a coalition in April to fight the Mississippi legislature after they passed a bill prohibiting abortion after the fifteenth week of pregnancy. Several of his anti-Trump suits also sought to reverse religious protections to employers and doctors in providing brith control and abortion.
In a tweet on Sunday, pro-life organization Susan B. Anthony List called Becerra an “extremist” on abortion, saying “Republican senators must stand firm and stop this unacceptable nomination from going forward.” Numerous Republican leaders, including Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), have already pledged to reject Becerra’s nomination on this basis.
Proponent of a Single-Payer Healthcare System
When asked in 2017 whether he would support a socialized plan similar to those proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), he responded with a resounding yes. “Oh, absolutely. I’ve been a supporter of Medicare for all of the 24 years I was in Congress.” When pressed about these comments, an insider told Politico that the Biden team is confident Becerra will support Biden’s pledge to create a public insurance option that will compete with private plans.
Becerra also caused controversy in the 1990s when he traveled to Cuba to visit with Fidel Castro. The trip prompted “personally insulted” members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to resign, leaving the formerly bipartisan group comprised entirely of Democrats. He has since voted to ease the trade embargo on Cuba.
Without any leadership experience in public health policy, Becerra’s time as Secretary of Health and Human Services promises to be especially challenging. As the pandemic reaches new heights, his first major task will be the coordination of vaccine distribution in the coming months. What his leadership could ultimately mean for the future of healthcare more broadly, however, remains to be seen.
Rikki Schlott is a writer, activist, and student based in New York City.
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