Just How Responsive Is the Obama Administration to Oversight Questions?

The deeply troubled Obamacare rollout has renewed the debate over just how responsive — or unresponsive — the administration has been to congressional oversight, with Republicans complaining of a litany of stonewalling prior to the Oct. 1 opening of the health care exchanges.

“We cooperate with all legitimate congressional oversight,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday in response to a line of inquiry about the beleaguered HealthCare.gov website from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, headed by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

“The Department of Health and Human Services has engaged with Congress numerous times and will continue to engage with Congress numerous times on these — these and other issues,” Carney explained later in the daily press briefing. “I’m just saying that I think everybody here who wasn’t born yesterday has seen questionable congressional oversight in the past. I’m not saying in regard to this issue, I’m just saying in the past.”

While the White House has long chafed at Issa’s investigations, Republicans in both chambers have complained that their requests have frequently either gone unanswered or have taken too much time to get a response.

For instance, the minority staff of the Senate Finance Committee says it’s taken HHS an average of four months to respond to formal inquiries from the panel’s Republicans.

And they have yet to receive any answers to questions raised in a June letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius spearheaded by ranking member Orrin G. Hatch in which eight colleagues joined the Utah Republican.

The letter asked 15 questions about the health care law’s Navigator program, which provides federal funds to local organizations to help educate people about Obamacare’s benefits and to help get uninsured individuals signed up for coverage on the new exchanges. After waiting months for a response, the group sent a follow-up last week.

“These are critical questions which need to be answered,” the senators wrote on Oct. 18. “In fact, the number of additional concerns about the potential for massive fraud and abuse which have arisen since our initial letter only reinforce the need for Congress to have more detailed information.”

The House Budget Committee reports similar trouble.

In a Tuesday letter to Sebelius, Chairman Paul D. Ryan renewed an August request for an organizational chart detailing the agency’s involvement in implementing the health care law.

“Since I made my initial request, there have been a number of problems with HealthCare.gov. In response, the President has called for a ‘tech surge’ to put the website in working order,” the Wisconsin Republican wrote. “So in addition to my previous request, I also ask that you provide an accounting of the costs of this technical support, including the number of people hired, their compensation, and the aggregate cost of their repairs.”

Just as Democrats weren’t pleased with the responsiveness of the last GOP White House, Republicans generally aren’t pleased with the Obama administration’s response time for queries they view as being well within the bounds of the oversight function of Congress.

“It is certainly not up to the administration” to determine what constitutes a legitimate congressional investigation, said Angela Canterbury, the public policy director at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.

“I think its plausible they’re being inundated,” she said, but added, “There’s a bit of stonewalling that goes on.”

The sparring over responding to congressional investigators is nothing new, said Stanley Brand, a longtime Washington lawyer and former House counsel with expertise in separation-of-powers debates. Brand said departments and agencies often aren’t equipped to handle the barrage of letters and need to be selective in responding.

Going through congressional requests can be “like the taxi line at National Airport,” Brand said.

Congressional committees do have the power to issue subpoenas, but that can result in prolonged legal battles. Brand said that as a result, going that route can have all the firepower of a “pop gun.”

Another approach is to enact tougher reporting requirements, but that’s a long shot in a case where the House and Senate have divided control. Nonetheless, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announced plans Wednesday to try just that.

“As millions of Americans have sat frustrated at their computers and on their phones, wasting hours trying to fulfill the Obamacare mandate and enroll in the exchanges, the administration has refused to provide critical information about what’s going wrong, or has dribbled out news through anonymous statements to reporters,” Alexander said in a statement announcing a proposal to require weekly reporting on the Obamacare rollout.

Carney announced Wednesday that HHS would start holding daily briefings on the Obamacare rollout. And the administration promised to hold a briefing for House Republicans — after House Democrats had their own briefing Wednesday.

As a practical matter, the necessity for the executive branch to respond to cries for information boils down to public relations, reliant on the public to discern between letters that are little more than press releases on official letterhead and those seeking serious responses.

As Canterbury notes, there’s no shortage of significant hearings being conducted by well-prepared members of Congress about myriad policy challenges away from the spotlight.

“Unfortunately, those wonkier hearings are snoozers,” Canterbury said.

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