On 26 April 2012 HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a self-described Catholic (bio here), testified before Congress about the Affordable Care Act (more commonly referred to as Obamacare). During that testimony

a number of questions were put to her by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC, 4th Dist.) concerning a statement she had made with regard to that act’s controversial Healthcare Mandate, to wit [emphasis added]:

this decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised abouit religious liberty. I believe the proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.

Addressing myself directly to the character and content of her answers, which I can only assess as demonstrating a cavalier approach to the formulation of what she terms an “appropriate balance” in determining who may be exempted from the essentially absolute requirements of the Mandate (recall that nearly all employers will be required to provide all of their female employees with employer-paid coverages in their healthcare benefits package that includes “female reproductive services” which are (a) not intended to prevent a disease or unhealthy medical condition, and (b) to the provision of which the employer may have sincere and strongly held moral objections.) I am thus led to the question I have posed as the title in this post.

And that question is, “Just how competent and/or qualified is a Cabinet Secretary who does not seek out all available counsel as to the legality and constitutionality of a decision that has such far-reaching implications as requiring a third party to pay for a service which that third party may reasonably see as a grave evil (abortion and abortifacient drugs,1 to cite two examples).

As a retired Naval Officer, and employed in a subsequent county government supervisory position in a public facing department (a County Assessor’s Office, in which I was the supervisor of those staff members maintaining the cadastral maps and assessment data), I would not have dreamt of making a decision of this magnitude, and one so entangled with the question of private conscience, without very thorough consultation with our attorney in the County Prosecutor’s Office. And my decisions were wholly related to the application of straightforward State statutes to issues involved in property law, property taxation and statutory exemptions pertaining to those topics.

But in the incumbent HHS Secretary we see a Presidential Cabinet level official who simply trusted one, or perhaps a very few departmental attorneys to provide her with advice on how to “strike the appropriate balance” between “religious freedom” [which is, in se, a mischaracterization of the issue under consideration—this is a matter of conscience for the not inconsiderable number of people who see abortion (whether chemically or mechanically induced) as the taking of an innocent human life, although that is a topic for another day]. Let us face the facts, she had available the not insubstantial resources of constitutional lawyers in the Dept. of Justice, and had the arrogance to think she knew enough to decide the matter herself, apparently based on what were very likely informal deskside briefings from HHS lawyers whose expertise is, I should think, not particularly biased towards constitutional law.

If one wished to be uncharitable towards the Secretary, one would be tempted to apply to her the verbal result of the experiment recounted in Douglas Hofstadter’s book <em>Gödel, Escher, Bach</em>, wherein two translators, both native speakers of Japanese, were given translation tasks. The first translator was given the English expression “out of sight, out of mind” and asked to translate it into Japanese. When finished he was paid and escorted politely from the premises. The second translator was then, without having any contact with the first, asked to translate the product of his predecessor into English, the end result of which was “invisible idiot.”


1 A number of “birth control pills” are not actually “contraceptives,” i.e., they do not prevent conception (fertilization of the egg), but rather they prevent implantation of the fertilized egg. Plan B, is but one such chemical abortifacient.