‘Now that the campaign is over, what is the people’s will? What is our mandate?” Joe Biden asked in his November 7 victory speech. “Americans have called on us to marshal the forces of decency and the forces of fairness. To marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time.”
One month later, Biden disregarded this self-described modest mandate with his selection of California attorney general Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. In the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic, Biden has selected as his administration’s top health official a man who has no experience marshalling the forces of science. What California’s top lawyer does have is plenty of experience marshalling the forces of the state to crush religious dissenters, pro-life pregnancy counselors, and independent journalists.
Becerra has waged a legal crusade against each of these groups as attorney general. In 2017, Becerra filed felony charges against the pro-life activists and citizen journalists who had gone undercover to expose Planned Parenthood’s gruesome practice of selling the body parts of aborted babies to biotech companies. California is a “two-party consent” state for audio recordings, but the progressive L.A. Times editorial board called Becerra’s decision to file criminal charges a “disturbing overreach.” The law had not been similarly enforced against animal-rights activists who recorded undercover videos. One writer at Mother Jones called the Planned Parenthood videos “a legitimate investigation, and no level of government should be in the business of chilling it.”
Becerra has also zealously defended a California law requiring abortion coverage in insurance plans offered by churches — yes, churches. In January, the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that California’s abortion mandate violated a federal law known as the Weldon amendment, which prohibits federal funding of states and localities that force health providers and insurers to participate in or cover abortion. Becerra announced California would not comply.
There are more examples of Becerra’s bizarre and misplaced extremism. In 2019, he aggressively opposed the merger of two religiously affiliated hospital chains in California because the resulting consolidated chain could reduce access to both abortion and gender-reassignment surgeries. In 2018, Becerra and the State of California were smacked down by the U.S. Supreme Court over a state law forcing pro-life pregnancy centers to advertise abortion. In NIFLA v. Becerra, the Court ruled the law was a grotesque violation of the First Amendment. It’s not always easy to disentangle Becerra’s own zealotry from the radicalism of California’s legislature, but Becerra’s selection is a clear sign the Biden administration is tempted to use the power of the executive branch to wage a culture war that will push and exceed the limits of its constitutional authority.
A president needs a cabinet, but the Senate also has a duty to provide advice and consent. In normal times, it would be entirely reasonable for the Senate to reject the nomination of a left-wing culture warrior such as Becerra. We are, of course, not living in normal times. The Biden administration will need to seamlessly pick up the Trump administration’s efforts to distribute the coronavirus vaccines and persuade enough members of the public to take the vaccines. Becerra has no medical background and no experience running a large, complex organization. Becerra’s notoriety as a left-wing culture warrior will make it impossible for him to establish credibility with a significant and skeptical swath of the country.
Maine Republican senator Susan Collins, who is no conservative on social issues, has already expressed surprise that Biden nominated a health secretary who doesn’t have relevant experience. In the interest of national unity and bringing the pandemic to a swift end, Collins and other moderate senators in both parties would be wise to inform Biden they intend to oppose Becerra’s nomination. Control of the Senate won’t be known until the January 5 runoff elections in Georgia, but Biden should withdraw Becerra’s nomination and select a more reasonable and more qualified nominee certain to hit the ground running on January 20.