Top Democrats in the U.S. Senate called on the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) Thursday to investigate Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), before the start of confirmation proceedings.
The move comes just days after the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives abandoned their attempt to gut the independent, nonpartisan ethics office following a flood of phone calls from constituents pressuring them into withdrawing the plan.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters at a Capitol Hill press conference that “every American should be shocked” after the Wall Street Journal reported that over the past four years, Price traded more than $300,000 in medical stocks “while sponsoring and advocating legislation” that could affect those stocks.
“We don’t know if he broke the law, but there is certainly enough serious questions to warrant a serious investigation before a hearing is held on Congressman Price to become secretary of HHS,” Schumer said.
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Two committees—Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) and Finance—share jurisdiction over Price’s nomination, though only Finance will vote on sending Price’s name to the floor for confirmation. HELP tentatively set Price’s hearing date for January 18, according to a Morning Consult report. Finance has yet to do so.
Though Republicans control the process, Schumer said he’s in talks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
“We have certain areas of leverage. We hope we don’t have to use them,” Schumer said.
In the meantime, Schumer continued, the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen filed a complaint with the OCE Thursday morning to potentially kickstart an investigation. Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, confirmed in a phone interview that filing and another with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Public Citizen gave Senate Democrats notice in advance of their press conference, Holman said.
Holman expects the OCE to take at least a preliminary look into Price to see if there is enough evidence to conduct a full investigation, though he was less optimistic about any SEC action.
By Public Citizen’s accounting from public documents, Price, a “prolific player on the stock market,” has made more than 630 stock trades since 2009—“right up into the current session,” Holman said. The trail doesn’t prove that insider trading occurred but “certainly raises questions” about whether Price had knowledge of nonpublic material information, Holman said.
Schumer laid out a strong, if circumstantial, case against Price, who helmed the House Budget Committee and serves on other committees and caucuses with influence over health care.
“Let me remind you that Congressman Price’s influence and access to information on these health-care issues was second to none,” Schumer said.
Schumer was joined by Sens. Patty Murray (WA) and Ron Wyden (OR), the top Democrats on the HELP and Finance committees.
Murray said that senators “will have to ask themselves if they are comfortable” with Price’s attacks on Medicare, Medicaid, and reproductive rights in addition to the allegations over his financial dealings.
Price belongs to a group falsely linking abortion care to cancer and thinks “there’s not one” woman who can’t afford contraception. As head of HHS, Price could issue a new directive saying that birth control is not a preventive service to get rid of the Affordable Care Act benefit requiring insurers to cover all FDA-approved forms of contraception without co-pays.
Wyden promised a hard look at Price from Finance, the committee of jurisdiction for Medicare, Medicaid, and other health and human services programs.
“We are not going to let these hearings go forward where you are talking about health policy that touches on decades and decades of efforts to expand protections for vulnerable women. We’re not just going to have those hearings and pretend those issues are unimportant,” Wyden said. “We’re going to make sure that the country does not, without a conversation, just turn its back on decades of progress in terms of expanding health care choices to vulnerable women.”