White House’s Wall of Silence on Obamacare Flies in the Face of Transparency Promises

One of President Obama’s most important campaign promises was also one of the easiest to fulfill—the promise to be transparent. There are no costs. There is no bill you have to pass. And there is nothing to blame—not partisanship, not gridlock, not polarization—if the promise goes unfulfilled.

And yet time after time we’ve seen the Obama Administration shield itself from the prying eyes of both the press and the people. They’ve shut out reporters, intimidated journalists, refused to give press conferences, and generally just made sure that every moment of the Obama presidency goes according to script.

Never has that lack of transparency and openness been more on display than in the weeks following the failed launch of the Obamacare exchanges. We now know that the website was pretty much doomed to fail. A New York Times report pulled back the curtain on a number of problems that were well known to the Obama Administration in the run-up to the site’s “go-live” date.

“Confidential progress reports from the Health and Human Services Department show that senior officials repeatedly expressed doubts that the computer systems for the federal exchange would be ready on time, blaming delayed regulations, a lack of resources and other factors,” the Times reports.

Part of the problems was politics. In an ill-fated attempt to prevent giving Republicans any election-year red meat, the White House delayed issuing several controversial regulations, a decision that put the project behind schedule. Politics also played a large factor in many of the exchange’s more problematic design elements; namely, a requirement that users register in the system so they can immediately be told if they qualify for subsidies so as to avoid the “sticker shock” of higher premiums. That decision was made as recently as the last week of September, just days before launch.

The deep-seeded political fear that the law wasn’t going as smoothly as planned led to a problematic “bunker mentality” in the White House. POLITICO reports:

Facing such intense opposition from congressional Republicans, the administration was in a bunker mentality as it built the enrollment system, one former administration official said. Officials feared that if they called on outsiders to help with the technical details of how to run a commerce website, those companies could be subpoenaed by Hill Republicans, the former aide said. So the task fell to trusted campaign tech experts.

But part of the problem also appears to be plain old incompetence. According to the New York Times’ report, the Obama Administration was so slow in giving the contractor certain design specifications that they couldn’t even start writing the code until this spring.

Sadly, Washington’s ineptitude knows no bounds. There are now reports that the federal health care exchange was built using antiquated, decade-old technology that will require constant updates over the next few months to get to a usable state. Kelly Kennedy writes for USA Today:

[Chief technology officer of a Rackspace, John] Engates said HHS has been opaque about the problems, and the tech industry doesn’t know the extent of the issues. “There’s no secrets leaking out,” he said. “I’m sure everyone’s looking for something to change the direction of the conversation, but it’s just not there.”

“I think it’s a data problem,” [CNNetworks president, Jeff Kim] said. “It always comes down to that.”

And if that’s the case, the problems are beyond “rocky,” he said. Instead, it would require a “fundamental re-architecture.” In the meantime, “I think they’re just trying to shore up as quickly as possible. They don’t have time to start from scratch.”

HHS’ “opacity,” to quote Engates, is now one of the main impediments to fixing the system. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has done his best to deflect any questions, chalking most of the problems up to the “high volume” of visitors to the site [a claim that has since been proven untrue]. He even had the guts to claim that the Obama Administration has been “very transparent” about the glitches.

If only that were true.

As of late last week Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was refusing to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee, citing scheduling conflicts. And according to the Wall Street Journal, HHS is also refusing to allow lower-level officials to provide any information or details about the system or the progress that is being made.

The Obama Administration came into office promising to be open and transparent. What better time to start than now?