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Sebelius' term was a disaster

By Newt Gingrich
updated 6:32 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Newt Gingrich: Sebelius presided over dysfunctional, extra-legal Obamacare rollout
  • He says a Cabinet member should be held to higher standard than other staffers
  • Gingrich: Sebelius could have gotten the nation's best tech talent to build the website
  • He says the administration violated the law in the way it implemented Obamacare

Editor's note: Newt Gingrich is a co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," which airs at 6:30 p.m. ET weekdays, and author of a new book, "Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past, and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America's Fate." A former speaker of the House, he was a candidate in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' announcement that she is leaving office is a good occasion to assess her impact.

Sadly her term as secretary of Health and Human Services was a disaster.

Americans should be able to expect that people who enter high public office will see their job as a public duty and will view faithfully serving the public and administering the laws as their solemn obligation.

Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich

Sebelius ran her office in a secretive and extraordinarily partisan manner that frequently ignored, violated and changed the law at whim.

Perhaps her approach merely mirrored the attitude of the Obama White House, but as the Senate-confirmed head of a major department of the American government, Sebelius must be held to a different standard than White House staff.

The White House staff is there to serve the President. Their positions are inherently personal and political. If the Obama White House is often arrogant, aloof, secretive and largely isolated from the Congress, it is because that is the President's style. And that is his right.

Leading a major federal department is a very different proposition.

Obama announces Sebelius' resignation
Inside Politics: Sebelius, Bush, Holder
Sebelius pays price for botched rollout?

The secretary of HHS has legal duties and obligations that define and limit what she can and cannot do for the President. Although he nominated her, her job is not defined by the President. It is defined by the law.

Again and again Sebelius operated secretly, without consultation, and beyond the limits of the law. She made dozens of changes to policy without the authority to do so, from waiving welfare's work requirement to pressuring insurance companies for Obamacare implementation dollars after Congress denied her budget request to delaying the employer mandate--twice--outside the confines of the legislation.

In fact, her capricious redefinition of Obamacare will be studied for decades as a stunning betrayal of the rule of law.

Even after illegally assuming powers she didn't have, however, Sebelius still failed spectacularly in her duty to administer competently.

Politics: Sebelius had 'toughest job in Washington'

I have worked with a number of very effective HHS secretaries, in particular Louis Sullivan, Tommy Thompson, and Mike Leavitt. They knew how to run things and how to get things done. By contrast, as an implementer, Sebelius may be the most incompetent major Cabinet officer in modern times.

The Obamacare website disaster she oversaw is a historic case study in bureaucratic failure. Once all the government decision documents have been released and all the participants interviewed, I suspect people will marvel at the isolated, ignorant, self-deceiving and ultimately catastrophic way in which Sebelius and the department she led failed the American people.

The failure is inexcusable because a department undertaking to reorganize the entire health care system has an obligation to get the central mechanisms--the parts that allow people to obtain health coverage--right. Americans' lives, jobs and savings were at stake. Moreover, from a purely political perspective, the failure is all the more stunning because it was obvious from day one that the website would be the most public symbol of President Obama's entire presidency.

Websites are now the stuff of everyday life. The public knows a good website from a bad website. And for years there have been effective, convenient and reliable sites to purchase insurance online.

Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of the tech community supported President Obama. The level of expertise and experience Sebelius could have called on to help with the website was breathtaking. Half the population of Silicon Valley would have been delighted to participate in what was clearly going to be a historic undertaking. But she and the President did not do that.

There is a sickness, almost a mental condition, in the Washington political-bureaucratic class that leads it to believe it knows everything.

Twenty-eight-year-old congressional staffers stay up until 3 in the morning writing laws about systems they have never participated in and cannot possibly understand. Fifty-year-old bureaucrats who have spent their entire careers in small cubbyholes in giant Washington office buildings (visit the Humphrey Building, which houses HHS, and you will see what I mean) issue rules and regulations on topics and industries about which they know very little, affecting millions of people they don't know in places they have never visited.

It was this kind of hubris that led to nonfunctional websites and the months of illegal changes to Obamacare.

And it is the same kind of hubris that led Secretary Sebelius and President Obama to travel the country advocating for a law that no one, including them, understood.

Sebelius' final betrayal of the public trust--after her abuses of power and her failures of implementation--was her fundamental dishonesty with the American people.

She had an opportunity to help lead the country in a constructive, open dialogue about health reform. Instead she defended the law, denied facts, dismissed legitimate questions and deceived the public. She tried to spin us on the life-and-death matter of our health care.

The secretary gave dissembling testimony before Congress about the website. ("The website has never crashed," she said. "It is functional but at a very slow speed and very low reliability." As she spoke the words, CNN displayed a live shot of healthcare.gov as it failed to load.) She repeatedly claimed not to know how many Americans had signed up for insurance on the exchanges, even months after they launched. She used secret e-mail accounts to avoid disclosure rules that applied to her communications as a public official.

Sebelius owed the public an open, participatory process of implementation. Instead she chose the opposite strategy of secrecy, dishonesty and hidden deal-making.

For delivering a breakdown when a breakout was possible, Sebelius was right to resign. She, and the administration she worked for, have done the American people a great disservice.

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