The Barack Obama White House made the correct decision when it agreed to allow the administration’s top technology officer, Todd Park, to testify before Congress about troubles with the Obamacare rollout.
Until a somewhat surprising announcement late Tuesday evening that Park indeed would appear the next day before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the White House had firmly opposed multiple legislative requests for testimony. The administration argued that going to Capitol Hill for a few hours would be “disruptive” to Park’s work.
At first glance, this controversy may not seem to the public to be very consequential. After all, wasn’t the debate merely about the timing of Park’s testimony? Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., wanted Park to testify without delay. The White House said Park was so busy trying to fix the White House health care website that he would not be available until some time next month.
The problem with delaying testimony is that Congress’ oversight function is impeded by one substantial delay that could then be followed by additional ones should the website not be fixed in a timely manner. At the hearing on Wednesday, Park could not answer whether the problems would indeed be fixed before December. That answer in itself validated the necessity of going before Congress without delay, as there is no sense that there is any end in sight soon to the website problems.
The danger became one of continuing delays while Congress would be shut out of the process.
The argument for a delay, outside of a genuine national emergency, has never had much credibility. During the George W. Bush administration, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice initially refused to testify before the 9/11 commission, but her claims of being too tied up with the heady work of her position fell flat when she gave multiple time-consuming media interviews on the same topic.
President Bill Clinton’s lawyers argued to the Supreme Court that he was too busy as a head of state to be made to testify in a civil suit against him. The court unanimously rejected the argument, with one justice pointing out that the president a few days earlier had played a several hourslong round of golf — less time than required to testify.
We can all agree that Park has a tough job and needs to devote many hours to it. The White House even played to sympathies that he puts in long hours and sleeps on a mat in his office.
But a single appearance before the people’s branch to answer questions that continue to smolder about the website mess hardly seems to endanger the efforts to fix the rollout problems. Before the decision to allow Park to testify, he had made time to speak to news media, which seemed at the time quite a swipe at the legislative branch as not similarly meriting his attention.
An episode of the hilarious show “The Office” has a storyline made for the current controversy. Dwight Schrute, one of the office workers, tells his officemate that taking any sort of break is cheating and one must work from 9 to 5. The idea of working every second of the day of course is absurd, and the rest of the episode showed Dwight trying to work while eating and drinking, without a break. Eventually he had to give up and admit he was wrong.
So did the White House, and that was the right decision. Indeed, for the sake of transparency and moving beyond yet another executive-legislative stalemate, taking a few hours to answer questions from the people’s representatives is a good thing for any administration to agree to do.
The Obama administration had three years to fix the website. They failed in that time. Congress had a legitimate interest in asking tough questions about that failure and how the ongoing problems will be fixed. Park’s appearance before Congress didn’t unduly harm his efforts to fix the health care website, but it did tamp down some of the intensifying interbranch conflict.
Mark J. Rozell is acting dean of the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and author of the book “Executive Privilege.” Mitchel A. Sollenberger is associate provost at University of Michigan-Dearborn. They are co-authors of the book, “The President’s Czars: Undermining Congress and the Constitution.”