The Obama Watch

A Thousand Points of Blight

ObamaCare waivers top 1,000 as White House stonewalls congressional inquiry.

By 3.10.11

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In a 2006 speech to the National Press Club about lobbying reform, Illinois Senator Barack Obama waxed eloquent about the malevolent influence of special interests on Beltway politics: "The American people are tired of a Washington that's only open to those with the most cash and the right connections. They're tired of a political process where the vote you cast isn9;t as important as the favors you can do." And, alluding to that infamous hive of scum and villainy, the Bush administration, he added: "When big oil companies are invited into the White House for secret energy meetings, it's no wonder they end up with billions in tax breaks while Americans still struggle to fill up their gas tanks and heat their homes." It appears, however, that talk is a good deal cheaper than political influence.

Four years later, Obama had long since moved to Pennsylvania Avenue and was receiving frequent visits from people with more than a passing resemblance to the iniquitous special interests whose influence had once filled him with righteous indignation. Not only did he conduct intimate tête-à-têtes with energy executives, meetings that outraged more than a few progressive advocacy groups, he was receiving a steady stream of visitors with much at stake in the health care reform legislation that was being hotly debated in Congress and in the public square. Many conservatives and libertarians worried that secret deals were being cut, and this anxiety was by no means ameliorated when we learned Richard Trumka was getting more face time with the President than was Mrs. Obama.

Then the other shoe dropped. Last October, it came out that the Obama administration had been issuing ObamaCare waivers to a list of unions and corporations that correlated rather suspiciously to the donor rolls of the Democratic National Committee. The indignation caused by this news increased proportionally as the total number of special dispensations grew to 111 by November and to twice that amount in December. And there was general outrage when an additional 507 new waivers were posted to the approval list the day after Obama's State of the Union Address. The list now includes more than 1,000 unions and other entities. Thus, several Republican committee chairmen in the House are interested in all of those visits the President received during the run-up to the final ObamaCare vote.

Fred Upton (R-MI), Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sent a letter to Nancy-Ann DeParle, who until recently ran the White House Office for Health Reform (WHOHR), requesting records of those meetings: "We are troubled by the secret negotiations which apparently took place between the WHOHR and outside interest groups, especially given the specific promises of transparency regarding health care reform.… We write to you today in the hope that the Administration will belatedly uphold the President's promise of transparency." However, despite the President's frequently repeated promise to run "the most open and transparent administration in history," the White House has refused to release any documentation beyond the meager snippets already sent to a few Democrats last year.

What could possibly justify this latest broken promise? According to Bob Bauer, who ironically needed a waiver from the President's famous "ethics pledge" in order to qualify for the post of White House Counsel, complying with congressional oversight just involves far too much work: "To provide all possible information encompassed by your request… would constitute a vast and expensive undertaking." The letter also contained this familiar-sounding passage: "To the extent you are also seeking documents reflecting internal deliberations and communications; it also would implicate longstanding Executive Branch confidentiality interests." Why does this sound familiar? It is how the Bush White House responded to initial questions from Congress about Vice President Cheney's "secret meetings" with those evil oil industry executives.

In addition to their requests for information about Obama's closed-door health care meetings, Chairman Upton has also shown an interest in the rules and procedures governing the issuance of the ObamaCare waivers. Upton and Cliff Stearns, chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, have sent a missive to the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight (CCIIO), the bureaucracy charged with actually issuing the waivers: "Your office has approved waivers from [ObamaCare's] annual limits requirements for 222 applicants. In a Nov. 30, 2010 meeting with Ranking Minority Member Michael Burgess, you stated that your office had also denied waiver requests. We would appreciate if your office would explain how a decision is made on whether compliance… is necessary."

In the same spirit of "transparency" that animated the White House response to Upton's document request, the former Democrat chairman of Energy & Commerce howled with indignation at the CCIIO information request. Henry Waxman (D-CA) hilariously claimed that it would be "disruptive" to the normal operations of the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) to provide the requested data. Upton's reply was characteristically ironic: "Last year the Democratic majority opted to place HHS in charge of the health care of every single American. If the HHS bureaucracy can handle monitoring every doctor and patient relationship in the United States, it can handle a simple request for documents from an American public hungering to finally know the details about the administration's health care takeover."

To date, however, the Obama administration and its health care bureaucrats have resisted disclosing any information it can possibly keep from the public eye. The information extracted from John Larson, Deputy Administrator and Director of CCIIO, at a late February hearing of Energy & Commerce was studiously vague about the criteria used to determine the winners and losers of the waiver lottery. And despite the President's ostensible concern about how tired the electorate is "of a political process where the vote you cast isn't as important as the favors you can do," it would appear that Chairman Upton will have to issue subpoenas to the White House to discover if the special dispensations from ObamaCare's provisions are connected with secret deals struck behind closed doors with the President or his minions.

As then Senator Obama so eloquently phrased it in 2006, the voters are indeed "tired of a Washington that's only open to those with the most cash and the right connections." Unfortunately the blight of backroom deals, bribes and old-fashioned obstructionism has metastasized exponentially since he became President. The only cure is to repeal and replace ObamaCare as well as the man who signed it into law.

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About the Author

David Catron is a health care revenue cycle expert who has spent more than twenty years working for and consulting with hospitals and medical practices. He has an MBA from the University of Georgia and blogs at Health Care BS.