Barbara Shelly: Sebelius facing a long summer

05/26/2013 12:00 AM

05/24/2013 5:40 PM

It’s looking like a long summer for Kathleen Sebelius.

That was going to be the case anyway, what with the pressure of getting state-based insurance exchanges – the meat of the Affordable Care Act – up and rolling in the face of obstruction from Congress and Republican-controlled states like Kansas and Missouri.

But now the former governor of Kansas and current head of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department has placed herself in the sights of scandal-hungry Republican lawmakers and political operatives.

In the words of one strategist, they are looking at Sebelius as “the fourth scandal.”

Scandals one, two and three, for those who don’t watch Fox News or breathlessly follow every Beltway occurrence, would be Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative nonprofit groups, and the Justice Department’s pursuit of phone and e-mail records of journalists.

Republicans are hoping scandal No. 4 will turn out to be Sebelius’ acknowledgment that she solicited financial donations from H&R Block Inc., the tax-preparation firm, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. She wants the money to go to Enroll America, a private nonprofit group that is gearing up to promote the Affordable Care Act and help people enroll in the new insurance exchanges.

Frankly, I wish Sebelius had refrained. She is careful, and I’ll be surprised if it turns out she solicited any business or group that her department regulates or does business with, which would violate federal law. But it doesn’t look good for the HHS secretary to be out with hat in hand, even if Republicans in Congress created the problem by refusing to allocate adequate funds to properly roll out the federal health care law.

A group of Republican senators, including Pat Roberts of Kansas, wasted no time calling for a “top-to-bottom review of the department’s decision to move forward with the initiative.” Republican House members have weighed in with their own probe. The Government Accountability Office has been ordered to investigate.

To a point, this is fair enough. Congress and the press both should be watching the administration. An independent, informed legal opinion as to whether Sebelius acted properly should settle this particular matter.

But it won’t.

One can envision the hearings. The outraged congressmen and the pompous senators grilling the secretary, with no answer likely to satisfy. The TV lights and live coverage on Fox.

It’s not really about Sebelius asking for donations. It’s about discrediting the president and ginning up fresh outrage over the Affordable Care Act in advance of the 2014 midterm elections. It’s about Republicans doing their best to prevent the president’s health care reform law from succeeding. It’s about promoting a narrative – the Obama administration as incompetent and dishonest.

The president’s steady poll numbers show that, so far, much of America isn’t buying it. Out in these parts, people are more worried about tornadoes than Sebelius’ money raising.

Washington publications report that at least a third of House committees are now preoccupied with investigating some aspect of the administration. It’s so much easier to grill officials than to earnestly seek solutions to the nation’s problems and actually get something done.

Therein lies the scandal.

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