Kathleen Sibelius and the Iliad
Kathleen Sibelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, had a short and clear brief to deliver yesterday before the House committee looking into problems with the rollout of Obamacare. She wanted to say, and did say, that the computer glitches were inexcusable but would be remedied in enough time so that people could sign up before the deadline, and also that people receiving notices of the expiration of their policies were doing so because their policies had been too recent to be grandfathered into the Affordable Care Act and that they could get better policies by going to the insurance market created by the ACA. She did not deign to answer the Congress people who cited letters from their constituents that said they had been notified that their cancellation was due to Obamacare and were offered more expensive policies as an alternative. A Democratic Congressman did press her to say that no one could be forced to buy the alternative offered by the insurer.
Sibelius did not ask the rhetorical question of whether one should believe what insurance companies say is their motive for putting out a new product or whether the Congressman citing a constituent letter had, before reading it, inquired whether the policy cancelled had been of long standing or not, or whether the person was aware of other alternative policies. It is a political no-no to question the wisdom of a voter and, anyway, all the Republican Congress people wanted to do was rant, and so let them use up their time doing so. That will bring the hearing to a close without her making a mistake by saying too much. None of the Congress people asked in a way that would consider an answer the question that I wanted to ask, which was what went wrong given that there had been three years to develop the web site. That is an extremely long time. Did they just not get around to it? Were there conflicting demands that got in the way? Why not go to the people who put up the Amazon web site, which is a marvel? Do government contracting procedures get in the way of hiring the best, and what should be done to change that?
What would qualify as a five minute press conference—add another ten for repetitive questions by reporters—took up two hours of her time and the time of forty or so Congress people and their staffs. Speak about waste in government. This is not the way to develop information that I, for one, would prefer to digest in memo form. But as has often been remarked in these pages as well as everywhere else, the purpose of Congressional hearings is not to develop information. It is to give every Representative on a committee a chance to shine for three minutes, even if that means looking silly, obtuse, or uninformed. What they want to do is deliver a message about where they stand on the issue, not what might be learned from the witness or even how to embarrass the witness. Only some people will draw from such performances the idea that Congress people are people who couldn’t hold down a serious job except in politics. Their ranks are filled with pest exterminators, funeral home operators, an awful lot of lawyers, and a few doctors who preen about how much they know about health insurance because they had patients—more than the patients who somehow never got fully reimbursed for their up front payments to the doctors?
It is necessary to remind oneself that the function of political speech is not necessarily communication. It can also be the evocation and mobilization of emotion so as to provide support for a political cause. You push the right buttons, and out come the placards and the cheers and, when you want them, the boos. Thus has it been since Aristotle turned his jaundiced eye on the matter. Aristotle was perhaps overly optimistic to think that political rhetoric made use of reasoning that was insufficiently rigorous to provide proof rather than plausibility. The Republican Congress people were not just a bit short of proof; they offered nothing in the way of proof, just outrage and unverified letters from constituents. They would not take an answer for an answer, however often Sibelius repeated the few things she was willing to say. They have no gift for dialogue, which means using what she said against her rather than going back to the talking point an aide had placed in front of them.
There is another way to look at the matter that is perhaps more salubrious. I was reminded by Geoffrey Miller, with whom I will share a panel next month, of a passage in Book Two of the Iliad, though I read that passage a bit differently than he does. The passage describes a dream of Agamemnon that is prompted by Zeus to foretell eventual victory. Agamemnon assembles his chiefs to tell them that he reads the dream to mean they should leave Troy because Zeus was out to deceive him. Catching wind of this, Athena tells her partisan, Odysseus, to stop a quick departure of the assembled tribes. He stops the leaders, one by one, as they leave the conference, and convinces them to go back to the war.
What I take away from the passage is that government is done by consensus and that the consensus can quickly change. The gods, in that weird way in which the conduct of the gods mirrors those of mortals, also had a conference about what to do about this war that dragged on, and that Zeus chose to disrupt or rearrange the consensus by appearing in Agamemnon’s dream. Everybody is always negotiating and nobody’s word holds for very long. So one or another leader has to be constantly lobbying and pigeonholing his peers to keep his consensus going.
Far from this being a primitive way of conducting political life in that it seems without stable structures for arriving at a decision, it is a fundamental truth about how politics and, particularly, legislative politics, operates. Congress people can be whipped, but they can’t be counted on for very long if the political winds change. They vote with the Tea Party when that seems the popular thing to do and then they will, in the next Congressional election, run away from that by claiming to have been the responsible people who only wanted the Tea Party option to have a chance. In the present instance, they are against Obamacare until it becomes popular, which will happen when people actually sign up. So they are not against Obamacare because they are against a new government entitlement, and so they are out to sabotage its roll out; they are against it because it still does not have the wind in its sails.
Who leads the Congresspeople in one direction or another? Sometimes it is Ted Cruz, who promotes what seems the fresh idea that you really can go over the cliff or much closer to it than anyone had previously thought possible; and sometimes it is the new statesman, Mitch McConnell, who is now promoting how he is a leader and so a compromiser rather than one of those stuck in the mud Conservatives, which is a role he found for himself only a few weeks ago when he was important in reopening the government. Sometimes, Joe Biden makes the deal, as when he negotiated the sequestration, which is now discredited by the Liberals who thought he should not have given in on that though that is all he could come up with at the time, the President having allowed the Republicans to play out the string on their oppositionist strategy until they had to collapse, which they would not have done at the time of the sequestration. A political strategy tried once too often is bound to fail. It is a wise leader who knows when this time is one time too many. Agamemnon knew that Zeus had overplayed his hand, but he did not realize that Odysseus had not used up all the value in his own cards.
Never fight on an old battlefield where everyone knows the terrain. The Union should have realized that about Bull Run. Find another path. So let us not in the next few months revisit either the sequestration or another grand bargain or another race to the cliff. Find something everyone can live with because it is a new thought whispered or dreamt. How about a selective set of cuts that do not injure any longstanding or overall program? Defense cuts are undone if the Defense Department gives up the F-35; entitlement reform is put off by chained cost of living increases for Social Security. There are deals to be done which allow people to shift sides, make new temporary coalitions, because that seems the right thing to do for the moment. Obama care fades as an issue once the website is working and Congress people will move on to other things to get outraged about, and Obama, our Odysseus, can keep on with his steady agenda, the next thing up being either to craft an immigration bill that can get through Congress or to keep immigration as the issue that will get him elected a Congress that will pass an immigration bill he really likes.