Like the Scarecrow, whoever came up with House Republicansâ plan to deal with Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday didnât have a brain.
It was their big chance to flambĂ© 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 Garlandâs Dorothy.
âIn âThe Wizard of Oz,â there is a great line,â Barton, one of the first Republican questioners, informed Sebelius, a former two-term governor of Kansas. âDorothy at some point in the movie turns to her little dog, Toto, and says, âToto, weâre not in Kansas anymore.â Well, Madam Secretary, while youâre from Kansas, weâre not in Kansas anymore.â
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 â 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 â spoiler alert! â the film doesnât turn out well for Dorothyâs persecutors, and the hearing, likewise, didnât 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.
âAccess to HealthCare.gov has been a miserably frustrating experience for way too many Americans,â she said in her opening statement. âSo let me say directly to these Americans: You deserve better. I apologize. Iâm accountable to you for fixing these problems. And Iâm committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site.â
This was a sneaky and dastardly thing for her to do: sneaky, because it wasnât in the advance testimony she gave the committee, and dastardly, because in todayâs Washington, any acceptance of responsibility is so rare that the Republicans â who were counting on her evading and deflecting â were bound to be caught off-guard.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) seemed not to have heard the secretaryâs apology. âYouâre now blaming it on the contractors and saying itâs Verizonâs fault,â she said.
âLet me be clear. Iâm not pointing fingers at Verizon,â Sebelius said. âWe own the site.â
Blackburn pressed Sebelius to tell her who led the team overseeing the project, and when Sebelius provided it, Blackburn pounced. âMichelle Snyder is the one responsible for this debacle?â
âMichelle Snyder is not responsible for the debacle,â Sebelius said. âHold me accountable for the debacle. Iâm responsible.â
Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) declined this offer. âThe president is ultimately responsible for the rollout,â he declared.
âNo, sir. We are responsible for the rollout,â Sebelius replied.
After more such back and forth, Harper insisted: âWhile I think itâs great that youâre a team player and taking responsibility, it is the presidentâs ultimate responsibility, correct?â
âYou clearly â whatever,â Sebelius said, allowing herself a rare moment of exasperation. âYes, he is the president. He is responsible for government programs.â
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 (âI will not, sirâ), to make enrollment voluntary for the first year (âNo, sirâ) and to hand over enrollment numbers (âNo, sirâ). 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 wouldnât allow it). She did not respond to Blackburnâs contention that Obamacare had deprived people of having a health plan that is âa Ford, not a Ferrariâ or a âred Solo cup and not a crystal stem.â
But many of her interrogators were unusually mild, probably disarmed by Sebeliusâs self-criticism. âI told the president that we were ready to go. Clearly I was wrong,â she admitted. âNo one ever imagined the volume of issues and problems that weâve had.â
After 31 / 2 hours of Fords and Ferraris and âWizard of Ozâ 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, âThereâs no place like the House.â