Sherrod’s Softball

Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, was back on Capitol Hill today to testify about the Affordable Care Act and the troubled healthcare.gov website.  According to NBC News, was “grilled” by both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Finance Committee.

Except, apparently, for Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown.  If the rest of the hearing was a grilling, Senator Brown must have been in charge of the backyard softball game.  NPR reports that Senator Brown asked Sebelius to talk about the law’s legacy:  “What are people going to say about the Affordable Care Act in five years and in 48 years?”

Huh?  The Secretary has presided over the most disastrous rollout of a federal program in living memory, the country is currently grappling with the fallout from that failure and other issues posed by the Act, and Senator Brown is channeling his inner Oprah and asking Secretary Sebelius to speculate about a legacy?

In fairness, these kinds of politicized questions aren’t unusual.  As the NPR story also reports, a Republican Senator used his entire allotment of time to make a critical speech, without asking Secretary Sebelius a single question.  What’s the point of having Cabinet officers testify if they aren’t asked questions?

These partisan antics are the kinds of things that drive me nuts about Congress.  There are dozens of entirely legitimate questions to ask Secretary Sebelius about how this landmark statute is working, why the website wasn’t better designed, and other topics of great interest to Americans who are trying to understand why the rollout of “Obamacare” could be so mishandled and what they must do to comply with a complicated statute.  Can’t members of Congress lay aside their party affiliations and their desires to make speeches, even once in a while, actually ask questions that should be answered, and get answers that will help them to decide how we can move forward?

Some Explaining To Do

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has scheduled a hearing on Thursday on the federal government’s health exchange website.  They’ve asked Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that is principally responsible for the website, to testify.  Sebelius has declined, saying she is not available to testify.

It’s not clear to me why Sebelius has declined the request.  The CNN story linked above doesn’t say Sebelius has a conflict on her schedule.  Instead, the HHS spokesperson said:  “Given that the government was shut down until today, we were given a very short timeline to respond to this request.”  Does that mean that the Secretary of HHS needs more than a week to be prepared to answer questions about how the website is working?  If so, perhaps the problems with the website are even more extensive than has been reported.

I hope Sebelius’ response to the request doesn’t mean that the Obama Administration is going to stonewall providing meaningful information about the operations of all of the health exchanges and the status of the enrollment process, and I hope that Sebelius reconsiders her decision and decides to appear.  The websites are a crucial component of the Affordable Care Act, and the federal government has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on them.  Taxpayers and citizens have a right to know how the system is performing.

In my view, it’s also in the interest of Sebelius and other administration officials to explain what is happening.  If there are problems, identify precisely what they are and describe what is being done to fix them and when the fixes will be completed.  If the enrollment process has some successes to its credit describe what those are.  No doubt friendly members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee will be happy to ask some questions designed to fully elicit the good news, just as diehard opponents of “Obamacare” will be asking tough questions.

As a matter of good government, we should all support requiring administrative officials to promptly testify when Congress calls.  We would all be better off if Congress exercised more oversight over our vast administrative state — from its surveillance programs, to its spending habits, to its error-plagued websites, and beyond — and regularly subjected agency heads to tough questioning about federal programs.  I can’t believe there is anything on Secretary Sebelius’ schedule right now that is more important than appearing before Congress and providing a credible explanation of what is happening with Healthcare.gov and the other health exchange websites.