Few Republicans doubt Chris Christie’s commitment to addressing the nation’s drug crisis, but the New Jersey governor’s appointment to a federal drug addiction panel this week could elevate tactics that have rankled some prominent conservatives.
Christie’s approach to rising levels of opioid abuse in his home state has blended two of his signature characteristics: visible passion for the issues he cares about, and his tendency to browbeat—and some say bully—political interests that stand in his way.
He will now bring those tactics from Trenton to Washington, where President Donald Trump tapped Christie on Wednesday to lead a new federal commission on drug abuse that will make policy recommendations to address what the president called “a total epidemic.”
Christie, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Wednesday, “has dealt with it at the state level” and “has been a leader on this issue.”
Christie focused more on drug addiction than any other 2016 Republican presidential candidate, and has made it a fixture of his agenda as he approaches the end of his term early next year.
But the governor’s tactics of late have upset a number of free market-oriented Republicans who bristle at his combative efforts to enlist the state’s largest health insurer as a financial backer of his anti-addiction policies.
Conservative activists such as Tea Party Patriots president Jenny Beth Martin are already warning the administration against elevating the types of policies Christie has recently pushed in New Jersey.
“Governor Christie must not be allowed to use his new position and expanded government power to try to extort money from private companies to pay for government programs,” Martin said in a statement on his appointment to the commission.
The alleged extortion referred to Christie’s recent populist fusillades directed at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey over its failure to put up sufficient financial support for the governor’s proposed drug abuse prevention programs.
Christie’s recent attacks on the insurer have drifted into anti-corporate language rarely seen from high-profile Republicans.
"Rich insurance companies in this state [should] pay to help take care of poor, drug-addicted people,” the governor said on Monday.
He is demanding that Horizon put up $300 million from its loss reserve fund to help pay for drug treatment programs in New Jersey. He reportedly rejected a previous offer from the insurer to contribute $135 million.
Christie called out Horizon by name in his February budget address, saying it “shares in the financial obligation of caring for our most vulnerable citizens.”
As a deal with Horizon has eluded him, Christie has become more irate. “If they say they don’t have the money, I’d like them tonight to reveal what they pay their lobbyists. What do they pay the CEO,” the governor said in a Trenton radio interview on Monday.
Horizon’s executive salary information is already kept on file with state regulators. The company is also required to publicly disclose how much it pays its lobbyists.
The company says Christie’s proposal would eat away at reserve funds that it has stashed away to deal with sudden spikes in catastrophic insurance claims. The sums that the governor is requesting would force it to hike premiums on its policyholders, it warns.
“Horizon is always looking to partner, but no amount of bullying or posturing will change the fact that the Governor’s proposal is a massive tax hike on policyholders,” Horizon spokesman Tom Wilson said in response to Christie’s comments on Monday.
The governor’s proposals haven’t just upset the insurance industry; they’ve also irked free market conservatives concerned at his determination to force a private entity to finance a new state spending program.
“While Governor Christie’s efforts to combat drug addiction has good intentions, his plan to raid the reserves used to protect the health of millions of New Jersey citizens for this purpose is not the right approach,” publishing executive and former GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes said of the proposal. “Imposing a permanent tax increase on the back of New Jersey residents and patients is not only fiscally reckless, but sets an awful budget precedent.”
Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who led domestic policy for the Trump transition team, called Christie’s plan “a reckless proposal that will increase taxes, undermine the insurance market and put the healthcare of the citizens of New Jersey at great risk.”
In her statement on Christie’s appointment to the commission, Martin called his efforts in New Jersey “financially reckless, self-serving behavior” that “must be stopped before it causes more consumer and economic harm.”
Christie’s office declined to address specific questions about whether he would try to export his model for insurer buy-in by proposing similar measures on the president’s commission.
While Martin, Blackwell, and Forbes all supported Trump’s election last year, Christie’s new role could expose some lingering divisions among more traditional conservative elements of the Republican base and the populist brand embodied by Trump and Christie.