California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, with a record in that state office and Congress that conservatives consider extreme, is headed for a rocky confirmation battle to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, in announcing Sunday his intent to nominate Becerra for HHS secretary, cited Becerra’s leadership in defending Obamacare as a state attorney general and his support for passing the health care law while in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Pro-life activists, however, point to Becerra’s record of trying to muzzle, and even prosecute, political opponents on the abortion issue.
Becerra, 62, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992 and reelected 11 times. A Sacramento native, he got his law degree from Stanford Law School in 1984.
Then-California Gov. Jerry Brown, a fellow Democrat, appointed Becerra as state attorney general in 2017 when the incumbent, Kamala Harris, won election to the U.S. Senate in November 2016. Becerra was elected to the attorney general’s job in 2018.
Harris, Biden’s running mate, will become vice president Jan. 20 if Biden prevails against President Donald Trump’s legal challenges to election results in several states.
Here are seven things to know about Becerra.
1. Telling Faith-Based Groups to Post Abortion Ads
After becoming California’s attorney general in January 2017, Becerra tried to force faith-based, pro-life pregnancy centers to post abortion information.
This move alone is enough for Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., to oppose the nomination.
“Xavier Becerra spent his career attacking pro-life Americans and tried to force crisis pregnancy centers to advertise abortions,” Cotton said on Twitter. “He’s been a disaster in California and he is unqualified to lead HHS. I’ll be voting no, and Becerra should be rejected by the Senate.”
In a 5-4 decision in the 2018 case of National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the California law requiring pregnancy centers to promote abortion, which the Legislature enacted before Becerra became state attorney general.
“[H]e went all the way to the Supreme Court to try to force California’s pro-life pregnancy centers to advertise and refer for abortion—a policy the court rejected as unconstitutional,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said Sunday in a public statement about the Becerra nomination. “In Congress, he even voted in favor of partial-birth abortion.”
The secretary of health and human services has authority over the nation’s health care and medical policy, which includes matters related to abortion—such as whether taxpayers should fund abortions in any circumstances.
The California law, passed in 2015, required crisis pregnancy centers (and any center licensed to provide medical services such as pregnancy tests and ultrasounds) to provide information about abortion.
The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates argued that the law, which included civil penalties for failure to comply, violated the First Amendment by requiring the centers to tell women about procedures that violate their faith.
Writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision, Justice Clarence Thomas said the California law “targets speakers, not speech, and imposes an unduly burdensome disclosure requirement that will chill their protected speech.”
After the June 2018 ruling, Becerra griped that women deserve information on abortion options.
“When it comes to making their health decisions, all California women—regardless of their economic background or ZIP code—deserve access to critical and non-biased information to make their own informed decisions,” Becerra said after the high court’s decision. “Today’s court ruling is unfortunate, but our work to ensure that Californians receive accurate information about their health care options will continue.”
2. Prosecuting Activists Who Exposed Planned Parenthood
Becerra also brought criminal charges against two undercover representatives of the Center for Medical Progress who caught Planned Parenthood officials on video describing a desire to sell body parts of aborted babies.
Harris, Becerra’s predecessor, first pursued the case; he took over after being appointed as attorney general when she won election to the Senate.
“Becerra is aggressively pro-abortion and a foe of free speech. As attorney general of California, he continued what his predecessor Kamala Harris started by persecuting citizen journalists who exposed Planned Parenthood’s role in baby parts trafficking,” SBA List’s Dannenfelser said.
David Daleiden, founder of the Center for Medical Progress, and employee Sandra Merritt told Planned Parenthood executives in a series of sting videos that they worked for a biomedical research company. The videos showed regional Planned Parenthood officials talking freely about selling baby body parts for profit, although Planned Parenthood later claimed the videos were heavily edited.
Shortly after becoming California attorney general in March 2017, Becerra announced that his office was charging Daleiden and Merritt with 15 felony counts related to invading the privacy of Planned Parenthood executives who didn’t know they were on video.
“The right to privacy is a cornerstone of California’s Constitution, and a right that is foundational in a free democratic society,” Becerra said after bringing the charges. “We will not tolerate the criminal recording of confidential conversations.”
The criminal complaint said that from October 2013 through July 2015, on 14 occasions, the duo filmed Planned Parenthood officials without their permission in the counties of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and El Dorado.
The criminal case is ongoing. Daleiden sued the state of California, Becerra, and Harris.
The editorial board of the left-leaning Los Angeles Times called the criminal charges a “disturbing overreach” by Becerra. The liberal Mother Jones magazine published a fan article that said Becerra was “chilling” a “legitimate investigation” regardless of one’s abortion views.
3. Supporting ‘Medicare for All’
During the presidential campaign, Biden said repeatedly that he opposed a “Medicare for All” health care plan, which would be a single-payer insurance system.
Becerra repeatedly has stated his support for the Medicare for All program proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who ran for president a second time in the 2020 Democratic primaries.
Asked whether he supported the plan introduced by Sanders, Becerra said on Oct. 22, 2017: “Absolutely. I’ve been a supporter of Medicare for All for the 24 years that I was in Congress.”
The conservative Americans for Tax Reform found and provided the comments from Becerra.
Becerra repeated his support on Oct. 2, 2019.
“I would scrap all of that and move us toward a system where everyone has access to health care, a single-payer system, a Medicare for All system,” he said.
As far back as March 21, 2010, Becerra said that Obamacare didn’t go far enough, though he still voted to pass the Affordable Care Act, the 2009 legislation creating it.
“We need to reform the system. My solution would have been Medicare for All,” he said.
The choice of Becerra to lead HHS doesn’t reflect well on what Biden presented during his campaign as a moderate agenda, said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
“Biden’s presidential campaign told America he would not raise any tax on middle-income Americans, would not take away their health insurance and not bankrupt America with a Green New Deal,” Norquist said in a public statement, adding:
His Cabinet picks—now including Becerra—shout loudly that he does want to take away your health insurance and replace it with a top down, one size fits all government program, burden middle class Americans with an energy tax and spend without limit in the name of a Green New Deal.
4. Filing Anti-Trump Lawsuits
While serving as California’s attorney general, Becerra was on the front lines of progressives’ legal resistance to Trump through the courts.
Among the lawsuits, Becerra sued over the Trump administration’s reducing Title IX funding for Planned Parenthood.
Becerra also sued to reverse the Trump administration’s conscience protections, a policy applied to doctors and nurses who declined to perform abortions because the procedure violated their religious beliefs.
He also sued the administration when the Justice Department withheld grants to the state because of its status as a sanctuary for illegal immigrants, in which it refuses to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
By late 2018, Becerra led 44 lawsuits against Trump administration policies, costing Californian taxpayers $9 million, The Sacramento Bee reported.
“When you put into perspective that less than 1% of our budget is going to defend our people, our values and our resources, I think most people would say ‘Don’t stop,’” Becerra told the Bee.
Becerra’s litigation to stop the Trump administration’s religious exemptions for Obamacare’s contraception mandate eventually led to suing the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns that serves the impoverished. The Obama administration’s HHS previously targeted the Little Sisters of the Poor for noncompliance.
The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the nuns in State of California v. Little Sisters of the Poor, combining that case with a similar legal challenge out of Pennsylvania.
“Becerra spent years tormenting the Little Sisters of the Poor in court, trying to force them to pay for things like abortion pills against their consciences,” Ashley McGuire, senior fellow at The Catholic Association, said in a public statement, adding:
He also led efforts to force pro-life pregnancy resource centers to advertise for abortion. Thankfully both of his efforts failed at the Supreme Court. But Becerra is outright hostile to religious liberty and Biden’s choice of someone so openly anti-Catholic is an affront to the faith that [Biden] so frequently invoked as part of his campaign.
5. Playing Role in House IT Scandal
Becerra, as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, had a small role in the House information technology scandal that came to light in late 2016 and early 2017.
This was a matter that first led to charges against an IT employee, which the Justice Department dropped, and an $850,000 settlement by the House for wrongful termination of the employee.
Information technology specialist Imran Awan, a Pakistani national, did IT work for several Democrats on Capitol Hill. The Justice Department investigated and cleared Awan of allegations he was a spy for Pakistan. However, Awan pleaded guilty to bank fraud.
Becerra employed Awan on his staff while chairman of the House’s Democratic caucus.
The House Office of Inspector General found more than 5,000 log-ins by Awan and five associates on a single computer server dedicated to Becerra, Fox News and other outlets reported.
The IG report said 40 or more members of Congress had all of their data moved off their office servers and onto Becerra’s server without their knowledge. Capitol Police got involved in the case.
Awan and his five associates subsequently were fired.
In the summer of 2018, the Justice Department announced in a court filing that after examining servers dedicated to House Democrats, reviewing other digital records, and interviewing dozens of witnesses, investigators found “no evidence” that Awan illegally removed data, stole House information, or destroyed House equipment, nor did he access sensitive information.
However, after being cleared, Awan and his associates sued the House for wrongful termination and it settled for $850,000 to avoid a costly court battle, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.
House Democrats blamed Trump and conservative media outlets that reported on the IG findings, the newspaper reported.
6. Protecting Illegal Immigration
In April 2019, Becerra, the son of working-class immigrants from Mexico, said illegal immigration should be decriminalized.
“They haven’t committed a crime against someone, and they are not acting violently or in a way that’s harmful to people,” Becerra said. “And I would argue they are not harming people indirectly either.”
It’s in part about messaging, California’s attorney general added.
“If you call them criminals, it’s a lot easier to get people to turn against them than if you call them undocumented immigrants,” Becerra said.
As attorney general, Becerra asserted that illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children were “badass” in supporting continuation of the Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Opposed by the Trump administration, DACA shielded these so-called Dreamers from deportation and allowed them to get work permits.
“I suspect in the revolutionary days the Founders were looking for people like them to join their fight,” Becerra said, adding: “Good thing I’m an optimist. I believe that DACA ‘Dreamers’ are here to stay.”
Before defending California’s sanctuary status as attorney general, Becerra in Congress strongly opposed a 2015 measure to withhold federal money from sanctuary cities.
“We can do the so-called ‘Donald Trump Act,’ which simply denies the cities and towns their dollars to hire police officers while attacking immigrant communities,” Becerra said at the time, when Trump was running for president. “Or we can actually do things that improve the lives of Americans.”
Also in Congress, Becerra voted to repeal certain restrictions on green cards. He voted against the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized construction of an additional 700 miles of double-layered fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border.
He also voted against the Real ID Act of 2005, which allowed the Department of Homeland Security to set some requirements for state driver’s licenses and ID cards.
7. Making Supreme Court ‘Short List’
In October 2019, the progressive legal group Demand Justice released a “short list” of the names of 32 candidates for the U.S. Supreme Court that the next president should consider appointing.
Becerra made the list after becoming known for his litigation against Trump.
Like Becerra, most others on the list were not judges, with only eight currently on the bench.
Others on Demand Justice’s list are American Civil Liberties Union lawyers Michelle Alexander, Brigitte Amiri, and Dale Ho; Nicole Berner, legal counsel for the Service Employees International Union; U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif.; perennial New York political candidate Zephyr Teachout; and Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.