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Column: A refund for Healthcare.gov, European lobbyists, and A-Rod's curious supporters

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius talks with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (L) during a healthcare eve
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius talks with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (L) during a healthcare eve

By Steven Brill

1. Can we get our money back for the failure of Healthcare.gov?

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal scored a scoop of sorts, getting the first interview with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius since her ill-fated appearance on "The Daily Show." She addressed the failure of her Healthcare.gov website to function as the enrollment marketplace for the 36 states that are having the federal government operate their Obamacare insurance exchanges, instead of doing exchanges on their own.

The Journal quoted Sebelius as saying "she would see if the government was entitled to any refunds, once the work is done." With $400 million having been spent on outside contractors for the collapsed website, reporters ought to follow up on that aggressively.

Government contractors usually escape responsibility for cost overruns, lapsed schedules or downright failure to produce a product that works by claiming, rightly or wrongly, that the instructions they were given destined the project for failure, were not explicit enough, or were changed midway through the work. In the case of Healthcare.gov, the Statement of Work instructing the lead contractor, CGI Federal, was 60 pages, single-spaced. So lack of detail may not be a great defense. But were the instructions poorly conceived — or changed in a way that caused the current fiasco? Or are other factors responsible for the failure, making it unlikely that we taxpayers can get some of our money back?

More generally, it seems as if every government contract results in delays, overruns, or failure. Has the government ever gotten its money back? When? How? What were the circumstances?

And who and what is to blame for situations where the contractors failed miserably but there was no accountability? One related example that I will harp on until someone does the story: Are we getting any money back from Booz Allen Hamilton for what their guy Edward Snowden cost us? Booz, by the way, was also a contractor on the Obamacare project.

2. Making D.C.'s lobbying mess look good:

Last February, I suggested a story that would "compare lobbying practices and regulations in the United States to those in other venues, including the European Union and its constituent countries." On Saturday, the New York Times did just that, in a terrific report by Eric Lipton and Danny Hakim. Lipton and Hakim scored fly-on-the-wall accounts of lawyers meeting with big corporate clients and unabashed quotes from former European Union officials now working for America-based law firms touting the access they had to their former colleagues. The Times team even provided details of what that kind of access produces: "Last year, Hogan Lovells helped an American semiconductor company secure an exemption in European environmental law that allowed it to continue using a potentially hazardous substance in the computer chips it makes. The firm also helped a group of American chemical companies avoid having to retest products to meet a new chemical safety law…."

Their story also explained how the European Union does not require the same publicly-available registration and client-disclosure reports from lobbyists that are required by U.S. law, allowing the influence industry to operate in near-secrecy.

It would be great if Lipton and Hakim now followed up and gave us a sense of the landscape in other important venues, such as London, Paris and Berlin. More important, although they pointed out that the lobbyists' influence at the EU is more about access to people they have worked with than it is about money (because political campaigns in Europe aren't nearly as fueled by special interest campaign contributions), they or someone else should try to analyze just how much difference that makes. Is the relative transparency of lobbying in Washington trumped by the reality that the Washington lobbyists and their clients control so much of the money that keeps those they are lobbying in office?

3. A-Rod's cheering squad — grassroots or Astroturf?

A group called Hispanics Across America has put up this website called "Support A-Rod 13" (13 is our hero's Yankee uniform number, assuming he ever puts it on again).

"LET'S SEEK JUSTICE," the homepage proclaims. "PLEASE JOIN US IN STOPPING THE INJUSTICE REGARDING THE 211 GAME SUSPENSION."

Below the headline is a picture of A-Rod's adoring fans, some wearing "Support A-Rod 13" T-shirts, gathered to cheer on their imperiled hero as he arrived for an arbitration hearing in New York that will decide whether Major League Baseball's suspension of A-Rod on charges he used performance-enhancing drugs and then covered it up will stand.

To the side is a click-through to send donations to Hispanics Across America. Its last federal tax exempt status filing with the IRS says that as of 2011 the organization was based in White Plains, New York and had revenue for the year of $3,800 and expenses of $452.

It shouldn't take Bob Woodward's curiosity and nose for a good story for someone to check out Hispanics Across America. Could this really be a spontaneous outpouring of support for someone not usually thought of as an Hispanic icon? Or is some tentacle of A-Rod's multimillion-dollar network of lawyers and PR people pulling the strings?

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