Kathleen Sebelius said goodbye to her colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services at a ceremony Friday in the White House Rose Garden. She was in the midst of telling a touching story, and paused when she flipped through the pages of her prepared remarks. "Unfortunately, a page is missing," she finally said. "So I'm just glad to have had this opportunity." It was an appropriate send-off.
Mrs. Sebelius was saddled with the impossible task of making Obamacare work. It's not like she could have done anything to make the government takeover of one of the most critical sectors of our economy a good idea. It was doomed to be a disaster from the beginning. Some people know how to suffer disaster with dignity. Wallace Hartley, the leader of the orchestra on the Titanic, realized what was happening and the futility of trying to save himself. He took out his violin and played a tune to calm passengers as the "unsinkable" ship settled into its watery grave.
Mrs. Sebelius could not similarly rise to her occasion. When she was called before a congressional panel to explain why the Healthcare.gov website flopped, the authentic message, in words not delivered, was simple: "The secretary was missing." Rather than take an active role in ensuring the president's No. 1 priority was implemented properly, she avoided planning and progress meetings. This enabled her to blame underlings, who were dispatched to meet the administration's constantly shifting demands.
Mrs. Sebelius knew from the start that "if you like your insurance you can keep it" was a message of pure hogwash. Under orders from President Obama, she nevertheless played an active role in spreading that promise. The problem with basing such a major endeavor on such a whopper is that the lie is contagious. One evasion begets a fib begets a deception, and soon people notice.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent Mrs. Sebelius a harsh letter all but accusing her of perjury in her statements about the safety of Americans' private information as it is entered into the Obamacare system. "Your failure," he wrote, "during numerous congressional hearings to explicitly mention the serious problems with security testing in the month prior to launch creates the appearance that you carefully chose language that would mislead members of Congress and the American public."
Sylvia Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, will replace Mrs. Sebelius. She faces no easy task trying to sell the public on a product the public clearly does not want.
She has an opportunity now to set things right with Congress and the American people. Amends must begin with a pledge of honesty and openness. With its 76,000 employees and a budget almost the size of the entire economy of Australia, there's no reason that this government agency can't release accurate numbers of actual, paid Obamacare enrollees who were not previously insured.
The administration taints the discourse when it issues only self-serving numbers, designed to paint the program as a false positive. The new secretary should work closely with Congress, opening up documents and inviting discussion on how to improve the law.
The most useful change of all would be for the new secretary to respect her oath to uphold the Constitution, which means changes to the law must be approved by the House and Senate and signed by the president, no matter how insistent Mr. Obama might be in telling her otherwise.
Mrs. Sebelius, though sacked by the president, can console herself that her lackluster performance as a Cabinet officer won't diminish future opportunities to make a little money. She will soon be the most sought-after health care lobbyist and consultant in town. There's not an insurance company around that isn't struggling with the question she wrestled with for five years: How can Obamacare possibly work?