There was no chance Kathleen Sebelius was going to have an easy time of it when she appeared before a House committee to discuss the poor rollout of the federal health care exchange website. The Health and Human Services secretary was already facing calls for her resignation from Republicans, and Democrats, too, were frustrated. But she has to be given props for bucking one Washington trend. She actually delivered a message that was not in the prepared text.
Sebelius started out her remarks by apologizing for the website debacle, saying she was responsible, and adding that Americans deserve better. That may not be enough for some people, but it was unexpected – so much so that the congressmembers ready to grill her didn't seem to pick up, at first, on the fact that she had made a blunt mea culpa that wasn't in the script.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., told Sebelius that the secretary was "now blaming it on contractors and saying it was Verizon's fault." Sebelius responded, "let me be clear. I'm not pointing fingers at Verizon. We own the site."
The disconnect occurred because Washington has become so accustomed to knowing in advance what someone will say (prepared texts are handed out before congressional hearings and presidential addresses), that no one bothers to actually listen to anyone anymore. Watch congressmen at the State of the Union address, and you'll see them reading along in the printed text or (worse!) tweeting while the president is speaking. This is not only disrespectful, no matter who's in the Oval Office, but it defeats the purpose of a live address.
In hearings – save the high-drama ones where lawmakers want to be star players in the theater – it's common for congressmen to arrive late, read a prepared statement, read from a list of prepared questions that may or may not have anything to do with what the witness has said in the hearing and then leave. Sometimes, lawmakers leave before a witness has finished answering his or her question.
The same is true on the House and Senate floors. Back before modern technology, a lawmaker actually had to be on the floor to hear debate and know what was going on. Then, senators had the "squawkbox," which allowed them to listen to debate in their offices, but also required them to be able to recognize the voices of their colleagues. With C-SPAN, no one has to go to the floor anymore to engage in debate. Hence, there is little actual debate. There's just a ritual trading of speeches and accusations. No wonder Washington officials can't come to an agreement on things. They're too busy paying attention to the scripts.
Sebelius still didn't have an easy time of it when she appeared before the committee, and understandably so. But perhaps her unscripted apology will force lawmakers to do what a congressional hearing requires: listen.