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Kathleen Sebelius confronts the party of brainless scarecrows

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Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hails from Kansas, a fact that seems to have struck her Republican inquisitors at a congressional committee hearing yesterday as an opportunity to cleverly invoke references to the “The Wizard of Oz.”

But the GOPers’ efforts in this regard were somewhat less than clever, as Dana Milbank EXPLAINS:

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,” [Rep. Joe] 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.”

(Snip)

[M]any 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…“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.”

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4 Comments

  1. ““Michelle Snyder is not responsible for the debacle,” Sebelius said. “Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible.”

    She needs to be taken up on this offer and relieved of her duties. the launch has been a giant failure.

    • Right, Joe. Because she was appointed by the President as an IT Manager and senior Software Engineer. Even the so called “experts” in this field got it wrong. She takes responsibility for getting it fixed. That doesn’t translate into, “off with her head!” (Oops. An “Alice in Wonderland” reference, my apologies.)

      • So whose responsibility was it to get this thing launched? “Sebelius said. “Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible.”

        IMO when things go bad you don’t fire the indians. You fire the chief. She has admitted it was her fault. Case closed.

  2. Joe, what’s even further amazing is how the majority of state run websites are also a failure. I don’t understand how this undertaking could have been such a failure in all the jurisdictions (I hear CA’s is in better shape than most).

    Three and half years they’ve had to get the concept in place and turned into a website. The claim that so many people accessed it at one time that it overloaded, just doesn’t hold. We know other websites like Amazon and Google for instance, that hold up well to the huge volume of daily inquiries they get.

    My experience dealing with high level managers is they tend not to know much about the product they’re managing. They consider themselves big picture types and rely on their underlings to do the actual mgmt and oversight and be the boots on the ground. With all the privatization that’s occurring in our govt, I suspect this is what happened.

    I’ve heard these kinds of horror stories from other types of businesses that hire a 3rd party vendors to build a concept product often times have no industry knowledge other than how to build software in general. They are great writing code but knowing the actual industry they are writing the product for is foreign to them, so they don’t know all the intricacy’s that a code writing person who has industry knowledge would have.

    The other big issue in the software industry (or at least was when I was a part of it) was the original people who wrote the code would often times leave the company and the new employee’s would have to interpret the ins and outs of the code they were attempting to maintain after the fact. In the world of software, and the corresponding code that runs the programs, each code writer although writing in a specific language, has a unique style of coding. Just like people who speak English (or whatever language) have a unique style of its use. Often times the new person who comes in to maintain a product, that they didn’t initially build the code, can make changes that affect code they had no idea existed, thus causing bugs that sometimes don’t show up until a particular scenario of events is accessed.

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