There wasn't much genuinely new information to be found at yesterday's congressional hearing on Obamacare. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius offered little more than canned defenses of the administration and more promises to fix what has so evidently gone wrong with the rollout of the law's technical infrastructure.
But here's something we did see highlighted in a revealing way: The administration's credibility on health care issues has been badly damaged. And Sebelius, in particular, appears not to be trusted, even by some in her own party.
Republican questioning focused heavily on the millions of insurance plan cancellations that are happening all over the country right now—and the contrast with President Obama's repeated promise that anyone who liked his or her health plan could keep that plan.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tx.) asked Sebelius whether she thought President Obama's statement was true. "Well, we know that lying to Congress is a crime, but unfortunately lying to the American people is not. I'd just like to ask you a simple true-or-false question. Is that statement on the White House website true or is it false?"
Her response was to try to challenge the framing of the question: "Sir, I think the statement is that…" Cornyn didn't wait to find out what she thought the statement in question was. He cut her off, asking again: "Is it true or is it false, Madame Secretary?"
She never directly answered the question, according to the AP account. Instead she said that "a vast majority" of people who currently have job-based insurance would be allowed to keep their plans, as would a majority of people who get individual coverage. Cornyn finished the exchange by asking the record to "note that you have refused to answer my question whether it's true or false."
It was clearly a question that Sebelius didn't want to answer, at least not directly. Other Republican legislators pressed her on the point, but the closest she came to an actual response regarding how Obama's multiple promises that individuals could keep health plans they liked was when she said "The president's promise was written into the law from Day One, and that was the grandfather clause."
At best that's a non-answer. The president's promise wasn't just written into law. It was also delivered verbally in unmistakably clear language on at least three dozen occasions. And what he said was: If you like your health plan, you can keep it, period. The law's grandfathering provisions, meanwhile, were written narrowly and strictly—ensuring that few plans would actually be able to retain their protected status. Democrats were warned that the narrowness of the rules would result in people losing existing plans. They went ahead anyway. That's part of the reason why people are upset.
That's not the only administration deception that came up during yesterday's hearing. And Republicans were the only ones to criticize the administration's botched rollout of the exchanges.
Regarding the failure of the exchange portals, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told Sebelius that there are "no words to even describe the frustration that all of us have."
Sen. Max Baucus, one of the law's Democratic authors, referencing his pre-launch warning that the exchanges could turn into a "train wreck" if the administration didn't get a better handle on the particulars of the implementation process, chastised Sebelius for failing to acknowledge the project's problems earlier—and for insisting that implementation was on track.
"Make no mistake, I believe in this law. I spent two years of my life working on the Affordable Care Act. There is nothing I want more to succeed," he said, according to The Washington Post. "But months ago I warned that if implementation did not improve, the marketplace might struggle…We heard multiple times that everything was on track. We now know that was not the case."
Baucus walked back his original train wreck remarks after they were widely quoted by critics of the law. But here he's making a charge that's arguably even more severe: He's not just accusing the administration of botching the rollout of the exchanges—he's accusing them of deceiving, or at least failing to inform, senior elected officials in their own party regarding the status of the implementation process, including one of the law's own chief legislative authors.
All Baucus wanted was reliable information. But that's something he feels as if he hasn't gotten. "You've got to tell us what the problems are," he said. "The more you don't tell us, the greater the problem is going to be." In imploring Sebelius to start being straight with Democrats on the Hill, he was implicitly making the point that up until now that's not what she and the rest of the administration had been doing.
That's important—and revealing. Republicans and critics of the law have never trusted the administration on Obamacare. But they weren't the only ones the White House misled, misinformed, or simply kept in the dark throughout the implementation process. Even senior Democratic legislators, for example, were given no early hint that the law's employer mandate would be delayed; party leadership was reportedly given just 30 minutes notice before the announcement went public.
And now some Democratic legislators are openly frustrated, and skeptical, as well. They haven't quite turned on the law yet. But they're wary of the people in charge of implementing it.
To put it another way: They still like Obamacare, but they don't quite trust the Obama administration. The problem, as the law's supporters are rapidly discovering, is that even with the best of reforms, bad implementation tends to make for bad law. Which means that if the administration doesn't start displaying some very basic technical and managerial competence, Democrats may increasingly find that they like the law in theory, but aren't so thrilled with it in practice.