As institutions go, the federal government has never been keen to admit mistakes. From the tragic internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to the ridiculous 1981 school lunch rule declaring condiments (yes, ketchup) as vegetables, the first response to criticism is usually a rush to the microphones to mount a stern defense. Sometimes circling the wagons works, and sometimes it doesn’t. In 1989, a gaggle of furious senior citizens chased Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski down the street, berating him over the newly implemented Medicare Catastrophic Insurance Program. Two months later the House voted overwhelmingly to repeal the law.
For Obamacare, however, no such fate looms in immediate view. Despite the widespread meltdown of federal online insurance exchanges — with sky-high failure rates, frustrated consumers, and even a high-profile Obamacare advocate who failed to enroll successfully — the White House plowed ahead. True to form, rather than acknowledge fundamental flaws within the law’s design, Kathleen Sebelius, once governor of Kansas and now secretary of Health and Human Services, was sent to the ramparts — or, rather, “The Daily Show” — to defend the indefensible. Someone had to do it.
Anyone who thinks this disaster derives from a lack of time or money is on another planet. The Affordable Care Act was signed into law by President Obama more than three years ago. This timeframe only underscores the ineptitude of the bureaucrats now entrusted with managing the largest and most intrusive federal program in history. As for cash, it appears that HHS spent over $600 million for the online system — more than it took to get Facebook started. Aside from the governmentwide sequester, Republicans have been singularly unsuccessful in starving Obamacare of funds for implementation.
No, this is a disaster of Obama’s own making, and it’s due to what the outgoing Social Security administrator calls “plain old incompetence and arrogance.” But it is not just about websites crashing. Obama signed into law a mammoth document passed in haste by the Senate on Christmas Eve with the expectation that a House-Senate conference would fix the dozens of drafting mistakes they knew were buried in the draft. That conference never came. With Ted Kennedy’s passing, Senate Democrats lost their supermajority, and the deeply flawed text was rammed through the House by a razor-thin margin without a single correction.
As a result, the White House has issued a flurry of waivers and exceptions to a law they say is “working.” In other cases, they’ve simply ignored the law altogether. Last year, as a preelection ploy, HHS used $8 billion to delay Medicare Advantage cuts that were mandated by the Affordable Care Act. This year, Obama has signed off on a raft of waivers — delaying the employer mandate, eliminating caps on out-of-pocket expenses, and postponing the enforcement of eligibility standards for subsidies.
That’s right, America, we’re rolling out Obamacare on the honor system.
Are these executive actions even legal? For most of the dozens of deadlines that have been missed, the law says “shall” — not “if you feel like it.” That stretch of the law isn’t Sebelius’s worry right now. On “The Daily Show,” her only weapons were a few talking points, a practiced tone of compassion, and some Kansan can-do spirit. That’s when she ran into the Jon Stewart buzz saw.
Stewart is at his best not when carrying on about ideology, but when mocking overly inflated institutions: politicians, Hollywood, the media. In a world of Capitol hearings where congressmen can’t articulate a question and bills that compete to attain the most compassionate and innocuous sounding names, a Cabinet secretary who’s oblivious to a train wreck is an easy mark.
Sebelius stammered, she evaded, she ignored the host’s questions. She claimed with a straight face that “we don’t know how many people have signed up online.” Stewart is no right-winger — he even supports a single-payer system — but he picked Sebelius apart, contradiction by contradiction. “If employers get an exemption from the law, why not individuals?” She offered more: more evasions, more compassion, more can-do spirit, which he met with a scathing rhetorical question asked on behalf of a frustrated country: “Am I a stupid man?”
The secretary and the president appear to think so. Yes, the government will fix the software bugs — that’s not the point. The website disaster is just a symptom of a deeply flawed law and the inevitable incompetence of the massive bureaucracy needed to carry it out. They have about 60 days to turn this mess around. Or at least create something worth defending.John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.