As health-care enrollees breeze past the 7 million goal, tech warriors celebrate a win

It was New Year’s Eve for President Obama’s administration Monday night as White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park counted down until the midnight Obamacare deadline and celebrated surpassing 7 million enrollments with a champagne toast.

Park rallied employees of QSSI, the Columbia, Md.-based software company tasked with rescuing HealthCare.gov after its tumultuous start. April Ryan, American Urban Radio Networks’ White House correspondent, posted audio on her Web site of Park’s locker-room-style speech to the tech team.

When hitting 7 million enrollments seemed far out of reach, White House officials denied that was ever an actual benchmark, saying it was just a number floated by the Congressional Budget Office. With enrollments at a crawl when the marketplaces first opened, the administration tripped over itself to temper expectations. (The Post’s Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, gave the White House two “Pinocchios” in January for playing down 7 million as the target.)

But surpassing that magic number sure was cause for celebration for Park and the IT team.

“There was a number that actually was set out by the Congressional Budget Office. . . . And everyone thought that was impossible, especially after we actually had the rocky start,” Park says on the recording. “And I actually am proud to tell y’all, and you’re the first to know, that y’all with this day alone . . . have carried the ball over the impossible line. We actually exceeded the 7 million enrollments.”

And the crowd went wild. So, as is no surprise to anyone, 7 million always was the goal.

Limos? That’s a stretch.

Luxury limos are a small fraction of the federal government’s vehicle fleet, and the Homeland Security and State departments operate almost all of the federal government’s 130 limousines, save for five used by the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to 2012 data from the General Services Administration. But at least one congressman, a Democrat from the Deep South, thinks that’s 65 limos too many.

Rep. John Barrow (Ga.) introduced legislation late last week calling for a 50 percent reduction in the federal government’s limo ownership in fiscal 2015. The number of taxpayer-funded limousines jumped in the first two years of the Obama administration, with 412 in the government fleet in 2010. But that has been cut by around two-thirds in the past two years. (Government agencies have 650,061 vehicles in all.)

But that change is largely a matter of accuracy rather than austerity. It turns out that agencies had been misreporting their types of vehicles, counting vans and shuttle buses as limousines. More accurate reporting — a limo is now specifically defined by the GSA as “a vehicle with a lengthened wheelbase, generally driven by a dedicated driver” — explains the drop in government limo use, not a concentrated effort to cut, though an administration official pointed to an Obama directive in 2011 to reassess the size of the government fleet as a factor.

Still, Barrow thinks more cuts could be had.

“No one questions the need for safe and secure travel for our top government officials and foreign dignitaries, but in hard times you can have too much of a good thing,” Barrow told the Loop in an e-mail.

His office estimates that the savings could amount to millions, but it didn’t have an exact figure. Barrow, a moderate Democrat fighting for his reelection, has pinpointed a series of small government expenditures to eliminate in the name of weeding out wasteful spending.

Also on Barrow’s chopping block? Tax deductions for legal brothels.

‘Nuclear’ power

The Democrats may be seeing some temporary benefits from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s November decision to go nuclear and remove the Republicans’ ability to filibuster most nominees.

The confirmation Monday of Los Angeles lawyer John Owens to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit — the seat had been vacant for more than nine years — brought the total number of Obama picks donning the black robes for this first quarter to 19, including three appellate judges.

Compared with Obama’s first quarters in pre-nuclear-option years, that’s some progress. In the first three months of 2010, the Senate confirmed only six Obama judges, according to a count by the Alliance for Justice. The Senate confirmed 14 in that period in both 2011 and 2012, but the number fell to nine last year.

Owens’s confirmation leaves 85 vacancies in the federal judiciary, including 15 on the important appeals courts. Obama has moved to fill 47 of those seats, with 25 of the nominees pending on the Senate floor and 22 awaiting Judiciary Committee action. (There are also 21 judges so far who said they are moving on within the next year.)

The Federal Judicial Center reports that Obama has so far filled 235 judgeships, 44 of them for appellate slots. By way of comparison, President George W. Bush put 324 people on the federal bench (62 of them for appeals courts) and Bill Clinton put the robes on 372 nominees (66 on appeals courts.)

If the Senate keeps up close to its current pace — maybe with a flurry toward the end of this year — Obama could pretty much match Bush’s total.

But with the strong possibility of the Senate switching to Republican control for Obama’s last two years, the number of judicial confirmations is likely to become a trickle at best, with perhaps only some district judges picked by bipartisan commissions getting through.

The real question is whether any Supreme Court retirees would be replaced with the GOP in charge. Should Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who just turned 81) step down, it’s possible someone could be found. But if Justices Antonin Scalia (who just turned 78) or Anthony Kennedy (78 in July) step down, thereby threatening the court’s conservative majority, we could see an eight-justice high court for a while.

— With Colby Itkowitz

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter:@InTheLoopWP.

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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