If I told you congressional Republicans launched a brand new probe this morning, you might think it has something to do with Benghazi, the IRS, or the Justice Department's leak probe. But as it turns out, today House Republicans actually got to work investigating Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius's effort to raise money to implement the Affordable Care Act.
As we discussed yesterday, the Obama administration sought additional resources from Congress to help enroll the public in coverage plans. Congressional Republicans, not surprisingly, refused the requests, hoping to sabotage the health care law. Sebelius has been forced to get creative, going to private-sector executives and non-profit organizations, asking for support. Specifically, HHS hopes to raise funds from stakeholders for groups like Enroll America, a non-profit educational group, which are already working to enroll uninsured Americans and increase awareness of the law.
In addition to drawing the attention of House Republicans, who launched a probe this morning, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has compared this to Iran-Contra. Sarah Kliff, who broke the original story on Friday, asked the Republican senator what in the world he's talking about.
KLIFF: I wanted to follow up on the Iran-Contra analogy. That seems like an awfully strong historical example to pick in this situation.
ALEXANDER: This is arguably an even bigger issue because, in Iran-Contra, you had $30 million that was spent by Oliver North through private organizations for a purpose congress refused to authorize, in support of the rebels. Here, you're wanting to spend millions more in support of private organizations to do something that Congress has refused.
Even by the standards of congressional Republicans, this is way out there.
Indeed, Kliff asked the right follow-up questions.
KLIFF: So who are the rebels in this analogy?
ALEXANDER: The rebels were the private organization. Enroll America is the private organization. But the difference is the cause. The cause in the first case was the cause of rebels in Nicaragua. And the cause here is to implement Obamacare. Congress has refused to appropriate more for that cause. The administration seems to be making a decision that's called augmenting an appropriation. It's a constitutional offense that's the issue.
KLIFF: I won't press on this much longer, but the causes seem quite different, between implementing a domestic policy and supporting the Contra rebels who were known to be killing people.
ALEXANDER: If you read the report of the Iran-Contra select committee, it said that the executive cannot make an end run around Congress by raising money privately and spending it. That seems to be happening here. That was essentially the problem.
Let's back up, because Alexander may not remember what made Iran-Contra such an extraordinary scandal. The Reagan administration "raised money privately" by selling weapons to a sworn enemy of the United States. Why? Because it wanted to fund an illegal war in Nicaragua.
And when I say "illegal war," I mean that quite literally -- Congress told the Reagan administration, in no uncertain terms, that Reagan could not send money to the Contras. Period. The Reagan administration, unrestrained by laws and the Constitution, did so anyway, and much of the president's national security team ended up under indictment.
In the case of the Affordable Care Act, Congress approved the law. Alexander may not like the law; he certainly doesn't understand the law; and he may be eager to sabotage the law, but it's a congressionally approved federal law anyway, and there's nothing scandalous about implementing it.
In order for Alexander's comparison to make sense, here's what would have happened: imagine Obama asked Congress to approve the Affordable Care Act, but instead, Congress did the opposite, approving a measure ordering the president not to change the existing the health care system. Obama, undaunted, sold weapons to North Korea and then used the profits to do the opposite of what Congress instructed.
That would be similar to Iran-Contra. For Alexander to see HHS implementing Obamacare as "even bigger" than Iran-Contra suggests the Republican is letting his hatred of a duly-elected two-term president cloud his judgment to an unhealthy degree.
What's more, Alexander hasn't just forgotten the basics of the Reagan scandal, he's also forgotten the basics of his own executive branch experience. A Democratic source reminded me last night that Alexander, during his tenure as a Bush/Quayle cabinet member, relied on private donations from outside Congress to help implement the administration's education agenda. Indeed, the same source noted that the Clinton administration relied on private-sector funds to implement the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and the Bush/Cheney administration relied on private-sector funds to implement Medicare Part D.
In Alexander's mind, are all of these efforts "even bigger" than Iran-Contra? Including his own efforts as Secretary of Education?