The Servant of All, or of None: Why Kathleen Sebelius Must Go

This morning when the alarm clock radio went off, as is often the case the first thing I heard was not the classical music for which I listen to this particular radio station, but rather a summary of news headlines from NPR.  The second of these headlines included an audio clip from U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who was defending herself against calls for her resignation as a result of the thus-far tortured attempts to implement the Affordable Health Care Act.  Rarely do I sit bolt upright in bed because of something I hear on the news, but in this case it would have been difficult to do otherwise.

“The majority of people calling for me to resign,” Secretary Sebelius commented at a press conference, “I would say are people who I don’t work for. And who do not want this program to work in the first place.”  You can watch Secretary Sebelius actually making this comment by following this link.

Sometimes one can almost audibly hear someone’s career hitting the skids, and this is one of those moments.

Over the course of her service in both elected and appointed government office, Secretary Sebelius has done many things which those of a different political persuasion from hers have taken issue with.  That of course is the nature of politics, and indeed of representative democracy.  She has also taken on a rather antipathetic view of her own Catholic faith, a view which she appears to value more than the fraternal correction she has received on numerous occasions from many of her fellow Catholics, including her own bishop.  One can debate whether and to what extent an individual’s religious beliefs become relevant to their place in the public square, or the obligation of public officials who are Catholics to adhere to the tenets of their faith.  I will leave that to those more adept than I at addressing such matters, and refer you for example to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia’s superbly-written book on this subject, “Render Unto Caesar”.

However in this case we are no longer dealing only with someone who has headed off in a policy direction which runs counter to and in fact openly attacks the institutions of her own faith, but someone who does not appear to understand the basic principles of civics, as practiced in the United States.  For as any reasonable American must acknowledge, regardless of their political affiliation, a public servant is the servant of all.  Secretary Sebelius is not simply the employee of the person who appointed her to the position which she presently holds, or of the political party which she happens to belong to, or of those who happen to agree with the policies she is attempting to implement.  She is, whether she likes it or not, here to serve all of us.

It cannot be that we simply accept or ignore the revelation that someone who was appointed to serve all of the people of this country equally has concluded that, in fact, she must only serve those whom she personally prefers.  This is not simply bad governance, it is the very definition of arrogance.  It betrays what is clearly a deeply-held, personal belief, spoken perhaps without thought as to its implications, but nevertheless revealing of the philosophical principles of the speaker,  that to be a public servant is to be selective in one’s servitude.

Our American system of government cannot function when our public servants are only capable of serving those whose views mirror their own.  So when a public servant of the people of the United States cannot come to grips with that fundamental concept, then that servant must either step down or be dismissed.  There are no two ways about it.

Whatever happens with respect to the implementation of Obamacare, clearly Secretary Sebelius has revealed by her own words that she is personally incapable of continuing to serve all of the American people effectively.  If she cannot serve all of us, then she should not be permitted to serve any of us.  And for her own sake, as a fellow Catholic, I hope that when she does leave, as she now must, she will take the time to reflect on what she has done during her time in office, not only with respect to the principles of civil governance, but particularly with regard to the Church to which she belongs.  Let us hope that her replacement, whoever that will be, will be more willing and able to serve the people of this country effectively and professionally.

HHS

Before The Tide Comes In: Obamacare and the HHS Mandate

Everyone in the new and social media universe has been predicting that sites like Twitter will be crashing later this morning when the Supreme Court decision on whether to uphold Obamacare or not comes out at about 10:00 am Eastern Daylight Time.  So before the internet is broken, I wanted to share some of the thoughts I took away from last evening’s Conservatism On Tap discussion entitled “After Obamacare”.  It was sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and featured Kyle Duncan, General Counsel of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and Professor Peter Lawler of Berry College.

As Mr. Duncan pointed out, the ultimate question before the Supreme Court is whether it is within the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause to mandate that people purchase health insurance: in other words, can Congress create commerce by forcing people to engage in it?  The average legal expert tends to believe that one cannot do this, at least as far as the individual mandate is concerned, but then the question becomes whether the law is severable, i.e. can parts of the law still survive even if the individual mandate is removed.  For example, if the individual mandate alone is ruled unconstitutional, does the HHS mandate remain in place, since that specific issue is not presently before the Supreme Court?

One of the analogies Mr. Duncan made last evening was particularly striking, whether one agrees with it or not.  With respect to the HHS Mandate itself, one can make the argument that Obamacare is a mortgage on our Constitutional freedoms, and the HHS Mandate limiting religious freedom is the first installment payment which is coming due.  Thus, if the Supreme Court does not strike down Obamacare in its entirety, then the Becket Fund and others plan to continue their lawsuits against the HHS Mandate, and that will be the next wave of cases generated by this law to be making their way up to the Supreme Court.

Professor Lawler pointed out that the Congress which passed Obamacare in the first place no longer exists.  Thus, if for some reason it is overturned in whole or in part, this Administration – even if it survives in November – would not have the chance to try again, unless there was an entirely unanticipated Democratic electoral tidal wave that flooded into both the House and Senate.  He also commented that now that some on the left have taken up the banner of crying judicial activism anticipating the overturn of Obamacare, they are going to have a problem.  The only way to get the public on your side with a cry of judicial activism is when the public thinks that the courts have gone too far; since Obamacare is so widely unpopular, the strategy of attacking the Supreme Court probably will backfire in the face of anyone on the left who attempts it.

The reality that everyone has to face is that employer-based healthcare programs are not really sustainable, Professor Lawler believes.  Healthcare will eventually have to devolve either to the individual or the government, and policy wonks understand this but the general public does not.  Ask your average GOP voter for example what he thinks of losing his employer-funded healthcare, and he panics.

Policy wonks have been exploring the changes that need to happen mostly with other policy wonks, rather than with the general public, and this needs to change because employer-provided healthcare cannot survive our demographics.  When people are living longer, and having fewer children, the system falls apart.  Unless people start taking up smoking and bad eating habits again and dying in their 50′s and 60′s, and having three or more children each, we cannot continue to have the system drawn up 30 or 40 or more years ago.  When planning for the future, Americans are going to have to get used to the fact that there will be uncertainty, and Mitt Romney needs to be preparing people for this, rather than trying to cover up reality with an unworkable mess, which is what this Administration made, regardless of whether or not the law itself is unconstitutional.

With respect to the HHS Mandate, discussion centered around the notion that the religious employer exemption is an example of the government interfering and telling people how to arrange themselves so that they can qualify as religious “enough” to meet an arbitrary definition selected by this Administration.  In fact, when coming up with the definition of what is a religious employer they simply chose the most restrictive possible, so that for example EWTN, the Catholic television and radio network, would not qualify as a religious employer because they do not solely broadcast their programming to Catholics.  The same would hold true for Catholic hospitals, universities, and so on, unless their primary activities were proselytizing and the exclusive care of their members.

These are some interesting points, then, for us to consider as we await the Supreme Court’s decision today.

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1826-1833)
Library of Congress, Washington

A Bumpy Night Ahead

In the classic party scene in “All About Eve” (1950), which for my money features the best film script ever written, Bette Davis utters her most famous line in cinema, “Fasten your seatbelts: it’s going to be a bumpy night.” Yet in the set-up to that iconic moment, in a conversation between Davis, Gary Merrill, Celeste Holm, and Hugh Marlowe, the last makes a prescient observation that something is looming over the evening’s festivities: “The general atmosphere is very Macbeth-ish. What has, or is about to happen?” For those interested in the outcome of health care reform legislation in the United States, the mood right now could be construed as something rather similar.

This evening I will be attending a discussion featuring Kyle Duncan, General Counsel at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Peter Augustine Lawler, Professor at Berry College, and Father James Schall of Georgetown University, entitled “After Obamacare”. The panelists will examine the Supreme Court’s review of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, as challenged in two Florida cases: National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius and Florida v. United States Department of Health and Human Services. The timing of this panel discussion is rather good, for it is widely expected that the Supreme Court will issue decisions in these cases tomorrow.

The title of tonight’s event could be understood in different ways. One way is to use the line of thinking taken by a number of pundits, who assume that some or all of Obamacare will be found unconstitutional by a majority of the Court. However another would be to consider what happens if Obamacare is not, in fact, overturned or modified in some way by the Court. If it is legal, then pending some action by subsequent legislation, it will eventually no longer be able carry the admittedly polarizing term “Obamacare”, having stood up to judicial scrutiny.  Even though many believe that the doom is about to fall on this not-very-beloved part of the President’s agenda, the question is whether the forest is coming to Macbeth, or not – and no one really knows.

For Catholics like myself, the real question for us is what will happen with the so-called HHS Mandate, based on what the Court decides tomorrow. We are now in the midst of the Fortnight For Freedom, which I wrote about previously, and many events are taking place across the country to raise awareness of what the enforcement of this particular part of the healthcare law will mean to religious institutions. This includes a huge mass which will be held on the 4th of July here in Washington, which I will be attending, and at noon on that day Catholic churches and other religious communities who are participating with us will be ringing their church bells at noon in solidarity for the right of all to practice their religion free from government interference.

Lawsuits against the present Administration challenging the constitutionality of the HHS mandate are now working their way through the court systems, but have not yet made their way to the Supreme Court. Thus, unless tomorrow’s decision is a complete or substantial rejection of the new health care law, the fight against this aspect of the new law will likely have to go on. While there are many in new and social media who are gleefully anticipating that the Court will rule one way or another tomorrow, the truth is that the Court has surprised us many times before. So even though I am looking forward to tonight’s event, and hearing the opinions of those who have thought long and hard about these matters, the truth is that we simply do not know what we are in for.

In “All About Eve”, the party scene concludes with everyone stumbling off home, after an evening spent bickering viciously with one another while sipping highly potent cocktails – as Bette Davis observes, party guests don’t care what they drink as long as it burns. As a country we have been having such an evening for the past two years now, perhaps not as festive an evening but certainly with a burn to it, as this law has made its way through the court system. What the hangover will be like after tomorrow, no one wants to think about right now, but whatever the outcome, one feels certain that a hangover of some kind there will be.


Celeste Holm and Bette Davis in “All About Eve”