JONATHAN COHN FEBRUARY 3, 2011
If Republicans in the House want to thwart health care reform, they have all sorts of options at their fingertips. They can vote—boldly but quixotically—to repeal the whole thing. (Um, check.) They can kick up their heels and pray that the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act. (That might take awhile.) They can try to block new funding for the bill. (That's coming soon.) Or, there's a fourth option, one that hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as the other three, but which might be the most effective strategy of all: death by investigation.
The firing squad's already lined up. Last month, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sent three letters to the Department of Health and Human Services. In the first, Upton wanted to know how, exactly, the agency was spending the $1 billion Congress has allocated for health care implementation. Upton has also asked what HHS is doing with the $400 million set aside in the stimulus bill for comparative-effectiveness research.
That looks like a fairly standard oversight request, though two Democratic congressional aides quietly fretted that this is all a pretext for figuring out what funds HHS hasn't spent yet—so that Republicans can take back the unused money. Upton, for his part, characterized the health care money as a possible "slush fund," while other Republicans have argued that HHS programs to educate the public about the new law amount to taxpayer-funded "covert propaganda."
Then there are Upton's second and third letters, where he asks HHS for “[a]ll documents or internal communications, including e-mail" concerning a whole host of seemingly small-bore issues—from the creation of new temporary insurance plans for high-risk individuals to some bureaucratic shuffling of an insurance-oversight agency. Some Democrats suspect these letters are just a ploy to bury HHS officials in a tsunami of paperwork—so that they're so busy responding to Upton that they barely have time to carry out the health care law. "It's just busywork for the agency," says one Democratic congressional aide. "The goal is to tie them down."
Earlier today, Henry Waxman, who used to run the House Energy and Commerce Committee and knows a thing or two about launching irksome investigations, wrote a letter accusing Upton of wasting everyone's time. He pointed out that Republicans don't have any specific evidence that there's anything shady about, say, the high-risk plans or the waivers granted under the health-care law. "In the absence of any evidence of misconduct," Waxman said, "asking for this much information … appears to be either another fishing expedition or an attempt to bog down the agency with excessive document requests."
HHS officials aren't in any mood to start complaining about Upton; an agency spokesperson just sent me this dry response: "HHS continues to implement the Affordable Care Act. We have received the letters and look forward to responding to the committee's requests." But Peter Harbage, who worked in the Health Care Financing Administration under Bill Clinton, told me that these sorts of requests—where officials are expected to dredge up reams of emails and documents—really do prevent people from getting their work done. Everyone stops what they're doing, because there's such a spotlight on a hearing, and you want to present your program in the best and most accurate possible way," says Harbage. "It takes a lot of time and effort."
So will Upton's investigations actually uncover any wrongdoing? Hard to say. But even if they don't, Republicans could still find plenty of fodder for criticizing health care reform. Those high-risk plans, for instance, were cobbled together in less than five months, and only about 8,000 people signed up instead of the expected 300,000—no doubt there might be something there. (Granted, the high-risk pools were originally a GOP idea, but never mind that.) Likewise, Upton's investigators could pore through the various health-care waivers that have been given to organized labor and argue that the administration is rewarding its union boss allies (even if a greater portion of waivers have been given to businesses). "It's all about how this gets framed," says one Democratic aide.
Either way, the document-dump fun is only just getting underway. Upton has also said he plans to drag EPA officials down to Congress as often as possible; as he told The Daily Caller, "Lisa Jackson is going to have her own parking spot up at the Rayburn horseshoe." Plus, of course, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) still intends to use his House committee to barrage various agencies with requests. It's a shrewd tactic—keep the Obama administration so preoccupied it barely has time for anything else.
(Flickr photo credit: Alliance for Community Media)