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.

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A Costly Solar Flame-Out (IV)

The Solyndra story — a tale of a company that got more than half a billion in federal loan guarantees as a showcase for green energy jobs, then plunged into bankruptcy — continues to unfold.

Today there will be hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, at which certain Solyndra executives have said they will exercise their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.  In the meantime, Solyndra employees have told the Washington Post that, after the company got the federal support, executives started spending recklessly and exhausted funds, in part, on totally unneeded goods and technology.  No one should be surprised by that result, of course.  When people, or companies, are flush with cash, they are likely to liberalize their spending habits.  Ask any drunken sailor out on the town after getting paid.

The Solyndra hearings are a good test of whether Republicans and Democrats can find some kind of reasonable common ground on a significant issue.  Every American, regardless of their political views, should want to get to the bottom of a situation that likely will cost taxpayers half a billion dollars.  Those tax dollars weren’t stamped Republican or Democrat.  If our government was duped by Solyndra executives, or if federal funds were committed recklessly to serve a partisan political agenda, we should get to the bottom of it so it doesn’t happen again.

A Costly Solar Flame-Out (III)

In recent years — where important legislation always seems to be prepared at the eleventh hour, after closed door meetings with only selected congressional leaders — it has been easy to forget that one of Congress’ more important powers is the power to investigate, obtain documents, and take testimony.  Much of the drama in the Watergate story, for example, came during the long, drawn-out congressional hearings into that scandal, as witness after witness drew the ring of scandal closer and closer around President Nixon.

The story of Solyndra — the solar power company that recently went into bankruptcy after receiving more than $500 million in government loan guarantees and then became the subject of an FBI investigation — may reignite interest in congressional hearings.  ABC News is reporting that the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will hold hearings on the Solyndra story tomorrow, has obtained emails that indicate that the White House was carefully monitoring the Energy Department’s consideration of loan guarantees to Solyndra, at the same time that government analysts were expressing serious concerns about the risks involved.

The Solyndra story is no Watergate, of course, but congressional oversight and investigation powers aren’t reserved only for scandals capable of bringing down a President.  Congress should determine whether federal officials disregarded clear risks and awarded more than half a billion dollars to a private company just to advance a political agenda — or, even worse, to help a political contributor who invested in a struggling business — and, if so, Congress should take steps to ensure that those officials are appropriately punished and such recklessness does not happen again in the future. Such actions would be a good sign that Congress may actually get back to doing its job and exercising its powers, rather than simply, and endlessly, fundraising and grandstanding.