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Cost-Free Accountability

A post-script to yesterday’s congressional testimony by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: In response to a question, she said, “Hold me accountable for the [federal health-care exchange] debacle. I’m responsible.”

This is among the oldest tricks in the book–to say you’re the responsible party as a way to avoid being held accountable. The words are meaningless. What exactly does holding her accountable mean? That she resign? Not a chance. That she be reprimanded by the president? No way. She has his “full confidence.” Nothing is different after her testimony than before it.

This is cost-free accountability.

What Secretary Sebelius is doing is making our society less, not more, accountable. How? By creating an Orwellian world in which asking to be held responsible for a massive error is the best and easiest way to duck responsibility for overseeing a massive error. And perhaps getting some credit in the process.

Secretary Sebelius certainly isn’t the first person to do this, and it’s a game played by people in both parties. It is, in fact, a common, if unadmirable, human trait.

So a modest suggestion: Let’s insist that from now on anyone who publicly asks to be held accountable is held accountable. That actions follow words. That the request to be held responsible is actually met. 

I’m not under any illusions that this wouldn’t stop debacles from occurring. But at least it would keep us from playing this ridiculous game and which everyone knows is a game. Especially Kathleen Sebelius. 


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