From the federal overhaul of American medicine that brought us the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, and Gator Aid, we can now add the Sebelius Shakedown. In what it calls an “unusual fundraising push,” the Washington Post writes, “Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has gone, hat in hand, to health industry officials, asking them to make large financial donations to help with the effort to implement President Obama’s landmark health-care law.” According to the New York Times, Sebelius has suggested “seven-figure donations.”
Sebelius’s actions, which may or may not have violated federal law, are certainly an abuse of authority. When possibly the second-most powerful person in Washington comes and suggests that perhaps you should make a donation to her administration’s favorite cause, it’s hard to say no — especially when she holds almost unchecked power over the business sector in which you compete.
The Times writes, “After first denying that [Obama] administration officials had engaged in fund-raising, [Ms. Sebelius’s] department confirmed Friday that [she] had made calls soliciting support from the health care industry, including insurance and pharmaceutical executives.” The Times adds, “The Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] said that Ms. Sebelius’s actions to supplement money appropriated by Congress were proper and would continue.” Sebelius, the Times notes, has been fundraising since March.
According to the Times, “several executives said they were uncomfortable with the discussions because the federal government has the power to approve or reject the health plans they want to sell in insurance markets that will be run by federal officials in more than 30 states.” The Times writes, “An insurance executive said that some insurers had been asked for $1 million donations, and that ‘bigger companies have been asked for a lot more.’”
Sebelius has encouraged that donations be made to Enroll America, a sort of community organizing group for Obamacare. The Times reports, “The president of Enroll America, Anne Filipic, worked on Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, became an aide to Ms. Sebelius, was later deputy executive director of the Democratic National Committee and then worked in the Obama White House as deputy director of the Office of Public Engagement.” Comically, it adds, “But a former Obama administration official, who spends time raising money for Enroll America, said its work [is] ‘not political.’”
Whether these actions are strictly illegal is not entirely clear. The Post writes, “Federal regulations do not allow department officials to fundraise in their professional capacity. They do, however, allow Cabinet members to solicit donations as private citizens ‘if you do not solicit funds from a subordinate or from someone who has or seeks business with the Department, and you do not use your official title,’ according to Justice Department regulations.”
The notion that Sebelius is fundraising as a private citizen, when her fundraising is plainly aimed at supporting the legislation she’s charged with implementing as a cabinet secretary, seems laughable. It’s not as if Sebelius is asking people to buy a few boxes of her granddaughter’s Girl Scout cookies. In addition, she is clearly soliciting funds from those who seek to do business with her department. Worse, she’s asking for donations from entities whose actions she’ll be regulating. One former senior HHS official calls her actions “truly unbelievable,” adding that “the conflicts are breath-taking.”
The Post writes, “HHS spokesman Jason Young added that a special section in the Public Health Service Act allows the secretary to support and encourage others to support nonprofit groups working to provide health information and conduct other public-health activities.” But it seems highly unlikely that this exception was designed to green-light a cabinet secretary to ask for million-dollar donations from entities whose businesses she has the power to make or break.