By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
Oklahoma’s chief law officer is making a name for himself on the national stage, challenging in court what he describes as federal overreach.
Critics on the left describe Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s challenge of the Affordable Care Act and other federal laws and regulations as political grandstanding. Proponents on the right say Pruitt’s efforts exemplify the integrity of a “highly principled man” who “is doing an absolutely wonderful job.”
Brett Sharp, a political science professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, said the perception of Pruitt “is one of those issues that depends on where you sit.” He said the state has “been pretty lucky” with its attorneys general because “they have played it straight most of the time.”
He added, “I guess our last attorney general (Drew Edmondson) was pretty much of an activist, too, but we’ve always had high-profile attorneys general.”
Pruitt is serving his second term as the chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association, which bills itself as “the only national organization whose mission is electing Republicans to the office of attorney general.” That raises suspicions among some about his partisanship. The stated goal of the association, which operates under the umbrella of the Republican State Leadership Committee, is to recruit “outstanding candidates, providing them with research and financial support, as well as assisting in message development.”
Wallace Collins, the state chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, said he has no doubts that Pruitt “is politicizing the office” of attorney general, which had fairly limited powers during the first few decades of statehood. He said Pruitt’s involvement with RAGA is proof of that.
“That just shows they are putting party politics before the good of the people,” Collins said about the decisions Pruitt has made about which issues to tackle during the first three years of his first term. “They are more concerned about getting more Republicans elected than helping the hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans get the health insurance coverage they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.”
Collins said Pruitt is much more of an activist than his predecessor, Edmondson, who stepped down to run for governor. Collins said Edmondson chose battles that benefited all Oklahomans regardless of party or position.
Oklahoma Republican Chairman David Weston couldn’t disagree more. Weston said Edmondson, who supported a lawsuit filed by the state of New Jersey against the Boy Scouts of America and its stance against homosexuality, politicized the office of attorney general more than his successor has.
“I think Scott Pruitt has done a wonderful job of protecting our state ... based upon the Constitution of the United States and the Oklahoma Constitution,” Weston said. “He is a highly principled man ... and what he is trying to do is roll back federal overreach, and the Affordable Care Act is a classic example of federal overreach.”
Pruitt spent more than an hour last week with the Phoenix editorial board discussing and defending his position on a number of issues. They included the lawsuits he has filed or supported that challenge federal health care reforms, its implementation and other federal laws and regulations.
Pruitt described his efforts as neither “policy statements” nor “political statements.” He reiterated that point several times as he shared the reasons underlying his decision to press forward with his challenge of the Affordable Care Act even after the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue.
“It is unfortunate that you have to be intentional and overt about saying that it’s not politics and it is not policy,” Pruitt said when asked to respond to questions about the public perception about his efforts. “I think it is awful convenient for folks to hide behind politics — and that is used very loosely — when an agency acts in a manner that is not authorized by statute and it affects the state interest.”
Pruitt described his role as the attorney general as a defender of the rule of law and protector against a government trying to push the limits of constitutional authority. In regard to federal health care and banking reforms and environmental laws and regulations, Pruitt said he “would be recalcitrant” and “negligent” if he didn’t pursue those types of cases.
Pruitt’s challenge of what has become known as Obamacare — a term that Pruitt says only “cheapens the debate” — addresses how the Internal Revenue Service will implement the law. The IRS rule at issue enforces the employer mandate penalty in states that opted not to set up a state health care exchange, something Pruitt said is authorized “by the clear meaning of the statute.”
“The state health care exchange was a right reserved directly to the states to make, and that either means something or it doesn’t,” Pruitt said, noting Oklahoma officials’ decision not to set up a state exchange. “The fact the administration decided to disregard it is not my fault. It is my job as (attorney general) to give life and breath and meaning to that statute if it affects the state of Oklahoma directly, and that is what we are doing.”
Pruitt used the same rationale to defend his decision to challenge the federal implementation plan for the regional haze rule, which Pruitt describes as purely aesthetic in nature. Pruitt filed a motion last week to have the entire 10 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals review a decision by a three-member panel of the court that was adverse to his position.
Pruitt said the Clean Air Act specifically reserves for the states the authority to implement plans that would “achieve natural visibility” in certain areas by 2064. The U.S. Environmental Agency rejected a plan put together by Oklahoma stakeholders and supplemented it with a federal plan that Pruitt said usurps the state’s authority.
In both legal challenges, Pruitt said, his lawsuits are “not meant to be a policy statement” nor a “political statement.” Those challenges and others with which Pruitt is involved are “meant to be a statement about ... the rule of law,” he said.
“We ought to care about what the law says, and we ought to care when Congress passes a statute and says agencies are authorized to do a certain thing that they don’t act in excess of the law,” he said. “Agencies exist to do one thing: to administer the law as passed by Congress. If they do anything other than that — act as a super-legislative body or legislate in some way — they are acting inconsistent with their authority under the constitution and representative democracy falters.”
Pruitt said that in his estimation, he is fulfilling the role of “what is right and true about what being an (attorney general) means right now.”
“It is the first line of defense and the last line of defense,” he said. “It’s making sure that when Congress passes a statute giving states certain authority, that the feds respect that and honor that because there is a cost to it otherwise.”
He said his “motive is sincere” and not slanted toward “politics and policy.”
“I think the evidence dictates that, but it is what it is,” he said. “You can’t convince everybody.”
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.