Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT