It should have been a slam dunk for Republican members of Congress, eager to make their case against Obamacare, as the health-care reform mandated under the Affordable Care Act is popularly known, when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius appeared as the sole witness before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, for a hearing about the “implementation failures” of the health-care program.
But instead of using the moment to simply point out the administration’s missteps in the bumpy rollout of the new health insurance exchanges, Republicans instead yelled at and mansplained to the lone woman at the witness table, addressing her as the dog in the classic film The Wizard of Oz, demanding that she purchase her own coverage through the health insurance exchanges, and badgering her to hang blame on President Barack Obama for problems with the website for the federal health insurance exchange and the cancellation, by insurers, of some insurance policies held by individuals.
On the day before Halloween, it seemed, Republicans were seeking a witch to burn, and some came off looking like bullies, while others were merely condescending jerks.
Democrats, on the other hand, focused mostly on all the nice things the law does for people: mandating coverage for preexisting conditions, for maternity care, for prescription birth control with no co-pay or deductible. Nice is nice, but not the greatest defense.
Through it all, Sebelius remained calm and polite, though occasionally showing signs of exasperation.
When Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) told her it was great that she was a team player, apologizing as she did at the opening of the hearing for the glitches, but pushed her to lay the blame at the feet of the president, the cabinet secretary replied, “Whatever.” (TIME’s Zeke Miller has the video, here and also to the right here.)
Not long after the hearing began, a ridiculous note was sounded when Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), referring to Sebelius’ former position as governor of the Sunflower State, said: “Madam Secretary, you’re not in Kansas anymore.” He went on to say that one might say that the HHS secretary and Congress might well be in “Wizard-of-Oz-land,” citing “the parallel universes we appear to be habituating.”
Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) raised a favorite trope of anti-choice forces that it is impossible to tell when purchasing health insurance through the exchanges whether or not the policy one is buying covers abortion—coverage anti-choicers oppose.
“If someone, a constituent of mine, or someone in this country has strongly held pro-life views,” Shimkus began.
“Here we go,” said an unidentified woman who was apparently near a microphone.
“Can you provide for the committee the list of insurers in the federal exchange who do not offer as part of their package abortion coverage?” Shimkus asked.
“I think we can do that, sir,” Sebelius said.
But that wasn’t good enough for Shimkus.
“Well, you should be able to do it,” he admonished.
Sebelius replied, with an outstretched hand, “I just said—”
“—No, you just said ‘if we can do it,’” Shimkus interjected.
“No, ‘I think we can do that’ is what I said,” Sebelius replied.
“You think, or you know we can do it?” Shimkus continued.
“Sir—I can’t tell you what I don’t know firmly right now,” Sebelius said. “I know that is the plan; I will get that information to you.”
And that’s pretty much the way it went throughout the morning, and into the afternoon.
In an apparent attempt to be helpful, Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) tried to spin the Wizard of Oz theme, noting that Oz people were digging the wizard “because of the wonderful things he did” and that Obamacare does good things too. This led the lords of the Twitterverse to remind Braley that the wizard was a fraud, and likely led others to pin the Scarecrow’s theme song on Braley.
More useful to Sebelius was her interaction with Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), who urged Sebelius to get the website for the federal exchange running smoothly as soon as possible (Sebelius said it would be by December 1), and then teed up a question about the Medicaid expansion, which a number of Republican-controlled states have rejected, despite the fact that the federal government picks up nearly the whole tab for the program, which is the mechanism by which the ACA was designed to cover the lowest-income Americans. (In the same decision that declared the ACA constitutional, the Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of the Medicare expansion.)
“I understand the frustration with the website,” Castor said. “But what I don’t understand is why people are not similarly outraged by the lack of Medicaid coverage in our states. Do you find that hypocritical?”
“Well I think it’s very troubling that millions of low-income working Americans will still have no affordable options if states don’t take advantage of the expansion program,” Sebelius replied, “leaving the state bearing the cost of uncompensated cost, the family bearing the cost that can’t take care of their kids, and workers not able to work, and people still accessing care through the emergency room, where it’s the most expensive and least effective.”
The hearing reached its most sublimely ridiculous in the questioning of Sebelius by Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who waved at Sebelius a letter he said came from his insurance company, canceling his health insurance policy, he said, because of Obamacare. Gardner went on to explain that he had rejected the federal health coverage available to members of Congress in order to be a man of the people. He then demanded that Sebelius reject her own federal employee-earned health insurance and purchase her care on the exchange.
Sebelius said that she wasn’t eligible to do so, because she had affordable health care through her employer, but Gardner would have none of it. Actually, Sebelius is over age 65 and is enrolled in Medicare Part A, leaving her legally ineligible to participate on the exchanges because she is … covered by Medicare. As Igor Volsky at ThinkProgress notes, “Exchange plans ‘duplicate many benefits provided by Medicare, and it is illegal for insurance companies, agents and brokers to sell such polices to people known to have Medicare,’” federal officials told the New York Times in October.
Then he had aids trot out a poster of a print ad commissioned by a Colorado nonprofit that urged college-age men to buy health insurance with an image of one “bro” doing a keg stand, supported by two others. “Keg stands are crazy,” reads the copy. “Not having health insurance is crazier. Don’t tap into your beer money to cover those medical bills.” (The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff has the ad, here.)
Gardner asked Sebelius if she approved of the ad. She said she had never seen it before, had nothing to do with it, and couldn’t even read it from across the room, where she sat.
“That’s a pretty big font,” Gardner sneered.
His question time ended with him demanding a waiver from participating in Obamacare for his congressional district.
Rep. Billy Long (R-MS) took a similar line, asking if, in the case that she was mistaken in her assumption that she was ineligible to participate in the exchange, would she do so? Each time that Sebelius tried to explain why she would not, Long interrupted, raising his voice louder each time.
“I don’t want to give misinformation to the American public,” Sebelius said.
“If you can, will you?” Long shouted, momentarily giving the hearing the feeling of domestic violence about to happen.
As Sebelius started to answer, he talked over her. “That’s a yes or no; that’s not an answer.”
Calling a point of order, ranking member Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) asked whether, if the secretary chose to go into the exchange, would she be able to find a plan that protected her “from cheap shots.”
Perhaps the most jaw-dropping comments, though, came from Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), who was incredulous that the plans sold to single men would include maternity coverage, since they will never need it. Ellmers is apparently ignorant of the way in which insurance works, factoring into premiums coverage for all manner of conditions individuals will never have.
No, the mandated maternity care benefit, as Ellmers saw it, was all about the oppression of young men.
“You’re forcing them to buy things that they will never need,” Ellmers said to Sebelius.
“Men often do need maternity coverage, for their spouses and their families,” Sebelius replied.
“A single male, age 32, does not need maternity coverage,” Ellmers replied. “To my knowledge, a man has never had a baby.” Her fellow Republicans erupted in laughter, not long before the committee closed up shop for a congressional recess.
They’ll return to the Emerald City on November 12.
CORRECTION: A version of this article incorrectly noted that the congressional recess had been “hastily called.” The recess was, in fact, on the schedule. We regret this error.