The next ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee will become a leading voice on health care at a time when the party has struggled to coalesce around a plan for replacing the 2010 law the Trump administration is asking the Supreme Court to knock down.
CQ Roll Call interviewed the three lawmakers — Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, Michael C. Burgess of Texas and Bob Latta of Ohio — running to replace retiring ranking member Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon about their health policy priorities.
The legal challenge to the 2010 health care law, which the Supreme Court will hear Tuesday, could overturn the whole law or strike only certain provisions. Burgess, who is the Health Subcommittee ranking Republican, said he doesn’t expect the court to strike down the law in its entirety, while McMorris Rodgers and Latta did not predict how the court would rule.
Democrats, led by President-elect Joe Biden, will largely be responsible for any legislation needed to respond to the Supreme Court’s decision. But Republicans can offer their own vision and work with Democrats, who will hold a narrower House majority in the next Congress, on areas with bipartisan support.
House Republicans felt good about their gains in last week's election. Burgess touted that Republicans held off Democrats in Texas.
“One of the big stories from election night is how big the House Republicans won. Speaker Pelosi and Democrats really have no legs to stand on when they say they have a mandate to lead on health care,” McMorris Rodgers said.
Preexisting condition positions
The ranking member contenders say they’re interested in ensuring the health care law’s guaranteed coverage for people with preexisting conditions remains in place, which Democrats have made a marquee issue.
“I’m very concerned about how much fearmongering has been out there about the potential for people with preexisting conditions losing that protection. No one is supportive of that,” said McMorris Rodgers, who has a son with medical conditions. She said passing legislation to protect people with preexisting conditions would be a top priority.
Burgess said Republicans could do a better job making their support for preexisting condition coverage clear to the public by emphasizing their own connections to those with preexisting conditions. He defended the 2017 bill that Republicans put forward to replace the law with individual risk pools to cover people with medical conditions.
He argued that most people with health insurance from their employer have preexisting conditions coverage guaranteed under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, known as HIPAA, and that progressives backing single-payer insurance want to overturn those provisions so messaging “is a problem for Democrats, too.”
Latta said preexisting conditions coverage is one of a few areas where the two parties could agree, but he is skeptical about the prospects for cooperation on more sweeping legislation.
“We were really clear and I think we were clear on that not just in this election cycle but in the prior election cycle in 2018, that we supported preexisting conditions out there for people and making sure they’re protected,” he said. “That’s an area that I think that everyone can agree on but again hopefully it’s not one of those deals when they come up with a bill and say take it or leave it.”
Countering any Democratic push for more progressive health care policies will be a priority, the candidates agreed. Biden campaigned on a public option, but it’s not clear if he’ll have enough support from Democrats in Congress to make that a reality.
Room for cooperation
Despite their opposition to Democrats’ plans for more government health care options, the ranking member contenders identified several policy areas where the parties could cooperate.
Surprise out-of-network medical bills and drug prices for consumers are two issues that the committee has considered and would likely continue to debate next year, particularly if there is a divided government. Other health issues Republicans see room for bipartisanship on include making permanent some of the telehealth regulations that were changed during the pandemic and increasing transparency so patients have more information about what their health care costs will be before services are provided.
Burgess said he thought the landscape for passing that kind of legislation may be more favorable next year.
“If there's one message that was delivered to this branch of government in the last election cycle, [it] was get your darn work done,” he said.
Congress could also take steps to invalidate the health law lawsuit by adding a severability clause to the health law. Burgess said he didn’t know why Democrats hadn’t taken such a step in recent years. Another option would be to fully repeal the mandate, he said.
Messaging on both bipartisan and controversial areas will be key for Republicans looking to retake the House majority in the 2022 midterms.
“Republicans have sometimes really shied away from talking about health care as much as they should. It is a top issue for people,” McMorris Rodgers said. “Republicans need to be clear in promoting solutions that are going to bring down costs, to ensure that people have choices … while also ensuring that America continues to lead in cures and breakthroughs.”
Noting that comprehensive health care bills have been a tough sell in the past, McMorris Rodgers said she’s interested in a piecemeal approach, starting with areas that would be more likely to have bipartisan support, like price transparency and telehealth.
Latta similarly said Republicans are focused on establishing a “patient-centered health care system,” that provides patients with more options and more price transparency. He’s also interested in expanding telehealth access and changing regulations for doctors as well as the country’s medical supply chain.
Counting the votes
Health care policies are just one part of the ranking member candidates’ broader pitches to the Republican Steering Committee, which effectively decides who will get the role.
The Steering Committee, composed of GOP leaders and representatives from various regions and classes, will meet at an undetermined date after Thanksgiving to hear candidates' formal pitches and vote. The panel’s recommendation then goes to the full GOP conference for ratification, typically a formality.
Burgess touts his seniority on the panel, which he has sat on since 2005, and his experience as chair of two subcommittees and ranking member on two other subcommittees. He also noted his experience as a physician made him well-suited for the role during the pandemic. The Texan is pitching his energy policy knowledge, too.
Seniority is just one of several factors the Steering Committee weighs, along with policy knowledge, communication skills and fundraising ability.
Latta, who currently is the Communications and Technology Subcommittee ranking Republican, noted his experience on all of the panel’s subcommittees. He highlighted bills addressing autonomous vehicles and opioid use, among others, that he’s shepherded through the House, telling colleagues that only four members of Congress have had more bills signed into law since 2012.
McMorris Rodgers, who currently is the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee ranking Republican, said her leadership, communications and fundraising experience through service as both Republican Conference chair and vice chair gives her a leg up.
Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, which also oversees health care issues, is backing Burgess.
“At a time where healthcare and energy policies are our nation’s biggest priority, we need a trusted leader like Dr. Burgess, who is an expert in both fields, to help direct our policy agenda for the future,” he said in an emailed statement.
Two Steering Committee members who spoke with CQ Roll Call on the condition of anonymity said McMorris Rodgers has an advantage because of her time in leadership.
“There’s not a policy difference among the people running on health care, but CMR has, I think, the greatest capacity to explain what we believe and I think that makes a huge difference,” one Steering Committee member said.
The fact that McMorris Rodgers is a woman and House Republicans just flipped several Democratic-held seats because of their effort to recruit women is “icing on the cake but that’s not the deciding factor,” the lawmaker said.
The other Steering member went further, predicting: “It’s a done deal in my opinion that Cathy has the votes.”
This report was corrected to reflect that the three lawmakers who were interviewed are the ranking Republicans on their respective Energy and Commerce subcommittees.