Most Transparent Administration Never

A good way to measure any government’s success is to see how it lives up to the standards it sets for itself. The same is true about its goals. Other people can set expectations, and say that there are things the administration needs to accomplish in order for it to occupy a good place in history. But ultimately, success is determined by those who set the goals.

Even before the beginning of his presidency, President Obama made it clear that his goal was to have the “most transparent administration ever.” When running for president as a junior senator, Obama consistently attacked the Bush administration for being what he said was “the most secretive administration, maybe in our history.” He insinuated that there was some sinister motive behind this secrecy, saying during the campaign that “[i]t is no coincidence that one of the most secretive administrations in our nation’s history has favored special interests and pursued policies that could not stand up to the sunlight … As president, I’m going to change that.” And despite the fact that he and members of his team continue to repeat it as though it were some great success on their part, it has become clear that in that respect they have been a failure.

The recent reports about how the administration is lacking in this regard would be troubling on their own. When put into the larger context, they are downright disturbing. According to Cause of Action, a Washington nonprofit which focuses on government accountability and transparency, “[t]he Obama Administration cannot credibly claim to be transparent” because of practices it engages in when responding to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests.

When a reporter submits a FOIA request for government documents, the government must by law respond within 20 business days. (There is an exception made for some difficult cases, where up to 30 days are allowed.) But there is a way that the government can delay the response, and that is by submitting the request for “White House review.” Historically, this practice was reserved only for communication that originated from the Executive Branch staff, as was made clear in a 1993 Department of Justice memo. However, it has been greatly expanded by the current administration.

In a 2009 memo by then-White House Counsel Greg Craig uncovered by Cause of Action, a new term was introduced in the lexicon of FOIA submitters and responders. The memo states: “This is a reminder that executive agencies should consult with the White House Counsel’s office on all document requests that may involve documents with White House equities.” The only thing is, nobody can really identify what exactly a “White House equity” is.

Documents about the $822,000 GSA conference? Check. What about the way the stimulus bill was being spent? Check. The calendars for cabinet members? Also a check.

Cause of Action went so far as to submit FOIA requests to 20 government agencies for documents regarding the White House Counsel’s review of agency records. The requests were made at different points in 2013, between August and November. As of this writing, only four agencies  responded at all. The rest are, somewhat ironically, apparently undergoing “White House review” which, in one case, has stalled the response over 200 business days.

There is one thing about not living up to one’s own goals and standards which makes the terming of that particular failure quite mordant. If only the bar had not been set so high, not reaching it would not be a disappointment. Only because it was set where it was, in this case by then-Senator Obama, does not achieving the goal become a letdown.

In late September, right before open enrollment began for Obamacare, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius sat for an interview with NBC News. Secretary Sebelius said, “I think that Success looks like at least seven million people having signed up by the end of March 2014.” The administration similarly said, according to multiple media reports, that the percentage of sign-ups that need to be young and relatively healthy for the risk pool model to work needs to be a shade below 40 percent.

But achieving both these numbers now seems like a fairy tale.

Last week the administration said on a conference call that they had hit 6 million enrollees days ahead of the March 31 deadline. Senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer announced that it was “important to remember that back in October and November, everyone thought getting to 6 mil was impossible. Amazing comeback story.” It seems that he’s misremembering what the original goal was.

The young-enrollee number seems to be in danger of being a bigger problem — a disaster, even. The Kaiser Family Foundation said that the worst-case scenario would have 25 percent of the enrollees be young and healthy. When the number was last updated in January, the percent of young enrollees did not even make that number.

It is entirely possible that the number got better in the last two months. The point is that the administration refuses to release that information, claiming that it doesn’t have that data. There are other data points it keeps stonewalling on as well, like how many of these 6 million enrollees were previously insured, and only signed up because they lost their coverage due to Obamacare regulations.

Topping all those is one more “unknown” and that is how many of the people they call enrollees actually paid the insurers for their coverage. If they did not pay, they aren’t covered, which makes the fact that they signed up for coverage on the exchange pointless. Experts believe that a conservative estimate for nonpayment rates would be at around 20 percent. That would bring a 6-million-enrollee number down to 4.8 million.

When Kathleen Sebelius was asked during a Congressional hearing about the nonpayment rate, she responded that HHS (Health and Human Services) did not have that information. But according to Reps. Dave Camp (R-MI) and Kevin Brady (R-TX), CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services), regulations require that insurers inform the agency of “the full enrollment and payment profile” of their customers each month. This, they say, leads them to believe that HHS has the numbers, but won’t release them because they do not look good.

Therein lies the delicious irony of the self-anointed “most transparent administration ever.”

It was only in 2008 that the “Hope and Change” candidate Obama attacked the Bush White House at a town hall meeting in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, saying, “You ask them for … the simplest information … they’ll just say, ‘Well, we just discontinued taking those statistics.’ They don’t want you to know the bad news!”

And that is precisely what his administration is doing with the Obamacare numbers.

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