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Tom Price’s Use Of Private Jets Wasn’t His Only Big Political Mistake

Tom Price resigned Friday, about 10 days after Politico first reported he had used private jets to travel as health and human services secretary, costing taxpayers more than $1 million.1 Price likely jumped before he could be pushed, and I suspect Trump’s aides will argue that he would still be running HHS if not for the planes controversy.

That might be true. But the bigger story of Price’s tenure — and why Trump may have viewed him as expendable — was the GOP’s failure to repeal Obamacare. When Price was picked to run HHS by Trump, much of the coverage focused on his long time as a congressman on Capitol Hill and his expertise in health care from being an orthopedic surgeon, the kind of resume that could make him vital to getting some kind of repeal-and-replace bill passed. As The New York Times wrote on Nov. 28, after Trump’s transition team named Price as its pick to run HHS:

If President-elect Donald J. Trump wanted a Cabinet secretary who could help him dismantle and replace President Obama’s health care law, he could not have found anyone more prepared than Representative Tom Price, who has been studying how to accomplish that goal for more than six years.

Early in his tenure as HHS secretary, Price was deeply involved in talks with congressional Republicans on Obamacare repeal. But by early this week, when congressional Republicans again abandoned an Obamacare repeal effort, Price did not seem to be playing a major role in the process. It was driven by Senate Republicans, with White House aides like legislative director Mark Short touting the proposal publicly. If Price were more actively involved, it was kept under wraps.

And if you think Trump wouldn’t blame Price for the failure of Obamacare repeal, remember that the president said in a speech in late July, in a joking-not-joking kind of way, “He better get the votes. Otherwise I will say, ‘Tom, you’re fired.'”

A few days after that speech, an Obamacare repeal bill was voted down in the Senate, with three Republicans joining Democrats to block it.

Of course, Trump may have decided that this plane travel controversy was a firing offense even if Republicans had successfully repealed Obamacare. But Price had failed in his major task for the administration and then gotten himself into a scandal that both made the administration look bad and — unlike, say, the controversy over Trump’s aides use of personal email — was easy for the public to understand. That’s a bad combination.

Price’s resignation, moreover, isn’t the end of the story. There are two lingering questions.

First, does this mean all Cabinet members who took controversial flights will be subject to dismissal?

There are reports that several other Cabinet members have used private or military aircraft and billed taxpayers for trips that they could have taken at much lower costs on commercial airlines. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, for example, reportedly chartered a plane at taxpayer expense to take him to his Montana home after attending an event in Las Vegas in June. (Though it’s not clear other Cabinet members have used private planes on the taxpayer’s dime as much as Price did.)

There have been no previous indications that Trump is determined to run a super-ethical administration. So I think Price’s firing will be an exception. But Trump’s dismissal of Price has set a standard, so I will be curious if the president applies it to others.

Second, will Price’s replacement be as hell-bent on weakening Obamacare as Price was?

Price wasn’t able to get an Obamacare repeal through Congress. But the department he led, Health and Human Services, is in charge of implementing the Affordable Care Act, and under Price it was doing very little to support the law: reducing funding to encourage enrollment, cutting back the hours when people can enroll through healthcare.gov and blasting the ACA whenever possible.

I suspect not implementing the ACA is a policy that comes from Trump — Price’s departure may not change much, and Price’s replacement will also be unlikely to take steps to help Obamacare. But that remains to be seen.

Footnotes

  1. That includes his use of government planes too, which came to light after Politico’s first report.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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