Column: Sebelius takes on the brainless
By Dana Milbank
“Some might say that we are actually in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ land.” — Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.)
WASHINGTON — Like the Scarecrow, whoever came up with House Republicans’ plan to deal with Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday didn’t have a brain.
It was their big chance to flambé the secretary of health and human services and the person who has overseen the disastrous launch of Obamacare. Instead, they wound up casting her as Judy Garland’s Dorothy.
“In ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ there is a great line,” Barton, one of the first Republican questioners, informed Sebelius, a former two-term governor of Kansas. “Dorothy at some point in the movie turns to her little dog, Toto, and says, ‘Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Well, Madam Secretary, while you’re from Kansas, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Thus began several references, each more painful than the last, to Oz, Kansas, following the yellow brick road, pulling back the curtain, the wonderful things the Wizard does — and, for good measure, something about Chicken Little, although he did not appear in the 1939 classic.
And, sure enough, the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee went after Sebelius like so many flying monkeys. But — spoiler alert! — the film doesn’t turn out well for Dorothy’s persecutors, and the hearing, likewise, didn’t turn out to be the humiliation for Sebelius that Republicans had in mind. Dorothy melted the Wicked Witch with a bucket of water; Sebelius doused her questioners with an unexpected and extended confession of responsibility.
“Access to HealthCare.gov has been a miserably frustrating experience for way too many Americans,” she said in her opening statement. “So let me say directly to these Americans: You deserve better. I apologize. I’m accountable to you for fixing these problems. And I’m committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site.”
This was a sneaky and dastardly thing for her to do: sneaky, because it wasn’t in the advance testimony she gave the committee, and dastardly, because in today’s Washington, any acceptance of responsibility is so rare that the Republicans — who were counting on her evading and deflecting — were bound to be caught off-guard.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) seemed not to have heard the secretary’s apology. “You’re now blaming it on the contractors and saying it’s Verizon’s fault,” she said.
“Let me be clear. I’m not pointing fingers at Verizon,” Sebelius said. “We own the site.”
Blackburn pressed Sebelius to tell her who led the team overseeing the project, and when Sebelius provided it, Blackburn pounced. “Michelle Snyder is the one responsible for this debacle?”
“Michelle Snyder is not responsible for the debacle,” Sebelius said. “Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible.”
Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) declined this offer. “The president is ultimately responsible for the rollout,” he declared.
“No, sir. We are responsible for the rollout,” Sebelius replied.
After more such back and forth, Harper insisted: “While I think it’s great that you’re a team player and taking responsibility, it is the president’s ultimate responsibility, correct?”
“You clearly — whatever,” Sebelius said, allowing herself a rare moment of exasperation. “Yes, he is the president. He is responsible for government programs.”
Otherwise, Sebelius, in a gray pinstriped jacket, her white hair well-coiffed and her fingernails manicured, was generally poised, keeping her voice measured even though Republican lawmakers took photos of her with their phones, and their staff members, lined up against a wall, laughed and applauded when their bosses scored points.
She bluntly refused their requests to fire one of her deputies (“I will not, sir”), to make enrollment voluntary for the first year (“No, sir”) and to hand over enrollment numbers (“No, sir”). She answered mildly even as a red-faced Rep. Billy Long (Mo.) and a furious Rep. Cory Gardner (Colo.) demanded that she drop her health-care coverage and join an Obamacare exchange (she pointed out that the law wouldn’t allow it). She did not respond to Blackburn’s contention that Obamacare had deprived people of having a health plan that is “a Ford, not a Ferrari” or a “red Solo cup and not a crystal stem.”
But many of her interrogators were unusually mild, probably disarmed by Sebelius’s self-criticism. “I told the president that we were ready to go. Clearly I was wrong,” she admitted. “No one ever imagined the volume of issues and problems that we’ve had.”
After 31 / 2 hours of Fords and Ferraris and “Wizard of Oz” references, Sebelius finally got to go home. But she had the power to do so all along: All she had to do was click her heels together three times and think, “There’s no place like the House.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.