Biden Misleads on His Previous Support for the Hyde Amendment

Joe Biden during a campaign event at Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, N.C., February 29, 2020 (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

A few days back, former vice president Joe Biden and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders engaged in their first one-on-one presidential-primary debate. On several occasions during the debate, Sanders criticized Biden’s voting record from his decades as a U.S. senator, including Biden’s past support for NAFTA, the Defense of Marriage Act, and military intervention in Iraq. Hoping to appeal to social liberals, he also pointed out that Biden used to support the federal Hyde amendment, an annual rider attached to federal spending bills that limits the ability of federal Medicaid dollars to fund elective abortions.

Sanders’s assertion was correct. As a senator, Biden supported the Hyde amendment, although he switched his position last summer during his presidential campaign. Up until recently, supporting Hyde was a common position for Democratic elected officials. Many Democrats felt that abortion should be legal but not funded with federal taxpayer dollars. As a result, since it was first introduced in the 1970s after the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, the Hyde amendment typically passed both the House and Senate with broad bipartisan support. In fact, during their respective presidencies, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama signed appropriations bills that included the Hyde amendment.

Biden’s attempts during the debate to explain away his past support for the Hyde amendment were misleading. He first attempted to deflect the issue, stating that everyone in Congress at some point voted for the Hyde amendment because it was “locked into other bills.” While this might be technically true, it is not the whole story. There certainly were times when the appropriations bill, which included Hyde language, was combined with other appropriations bills. But there also were other occasions when the appropriations bill that included the Hyde amendment was a standalone bill.  During his time in the Senate, Biden consistently chose to support such bills.

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Biden’s other explanation for his newfound opposition to Hyde was that if “we’re going to have public funding for health care along the line,” abortion cannot be excluded. As a presidential candidate, Biden has proposed expanding the role of the federal government in health policy, giving individuals the opportunity to purchase a public insurance option like Medicare. He also has proposed premium-free access to the public option for low-income individuals living in states that have not expanded their Medicaid programs. But none of these health-policy proposals require him to oppose the Hyde amendment. One can support expanding the government’s role in health care and still oppose Medicaid coverage of elective abortions.

During his time in the Senate, Biden consistently opposed using federal taxpayer dollars to pay for abortion. In 1994, he even wrote to a constituent stating that he had voted against federal funding of abortions on no fewer than 50 occasions.  However, seeing the leftward shift of the Democratic Party on life issues, Biden announced his opposition to the Hyde amendment last June. This is not the first time a politician has changed his position on a contentious public-policy issue. In the spirit of honesty, Biden should simply admit he switched his position on taxpayer funding for abortion instead of continuing to mislead Democratic primary voters.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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