A top Senate Republican is comparing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to convicted felon Oliver North for soliciting private donations to help implement the Affordable Care Act.
In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) charged that Sebelius circumvented Congress’ refusal to provide funds for the administration’s health care law by raising those dollars from outside groups, just as “Col. North was accused of using money raised in an arms-for-hostages swap with Iran to fund and work with private organizations providing military support to rebel armies in Nicaragua.”
In 1987, North admitted that he lied to Congress about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal — in which officials secretly sold arms to Iran to fund a resistance movement to the government in Nicaragua — and shred documents to cover-up the government’s actions. He was indicted on 16 counts and convicted of three: accepting an illegal gratuity, aiding and abetting in the obstruction of a congressional inquiry, and ordering the destruction of documents.
“With Iran-Contra, Congress had also prohibited support for the rebels, while in the case of health-care funding, Congress has refused to provide the amounts that the administration has asked for,” Alexander wrote. “But the principle and the legal prohibitions are the same.” Republican chairmen and ranking Republicans on five congressional committees have asked the Government Accountability Office to look into the matter.
Obama administration officials insist that Sebelius was following authority laid out in the Public Health Service Act — which allows the secretary to “support by grant or contract (and to encourage others to support) private nonprofit entities working in health information and health promotion, preventive health services, and education in the appropriate use of health care” — but “has made no fundraising requests to entities regulated by HHS.” The New York Times reported on May 12 that Sebelius did solicit donations from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and H&R Block.
Indeed, asking private organizations to contribute to administration causes is old practice in Washington, as Alexander himself knows.
In 1991, while serving as Secretary of Education for President George H. W. Bush, Alexander actively and enthusiastically sought private dollars to fund the administration’s education initiative, America 2000. Alexander crisscrossed the country to sell the program after Congress failed to approve Bush’s education funding request.
As he explained in a San Diego Union-Tribune op-ed on Sep. 27, 1992, “President Bush asked Congress to appropriate a half-billion dollars to redesign such new American schools. Congress balked, the business community didn’t. The president has asked American businesses to raise $200 million to fund design teams to help communities create such schools.”
Bush made the fundraising pitch in the Rose Garden in July of 1991 during an event with private donors, with Alexander standing by his side. “Funds are pouring in — I don’t want to say ‘pouring,’ because we’re going to put the arm on you all on in a minute here — but funds are coming in well,” the president said. “[A]lready $30 million has been raised, much of it from the corporations that are represented here today.”
The administration continued to fundraise for the effort, with Alexander himself making a pitch. Responding to a Associated Press report from August of 1991, which noted that businesses are hesitant to commit additional dollars to new causes during the recession, Alexander said, “In my opinion, the more you ask for the more you get. We’ve been very timid about asking American businesses to support elementary and secondary education, tiptoeing around the edges,” he added. “We shouldn’t do that. This is a big, rich generous country and we’ve got plenty of money for all the innovations, especially innovations in excellence.”
Alexander’s office did not respond to ThinkProgress repeated requests for comment about his past role in soliciting private donations, but the senator sought to dismiss the comparison earlier this month on the senate floor, arguing that Congress had not directly prevented the Bush administration from raising money from outside sources.