Oregon’s Schrader called for extending health deadline weeks before White House

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Executive Order 13526, which NSA Chief of Staff Elizabeth Brooks cited in rejecting Jim Scott’s request on appeal in getting his late father’s records. That order deals with properly classifying national security information; it is not the transparency-in-government order that President Obama signed on Jan. 21, 2009.


This photo of part of the HealthCare.gov website is photographed in Washington. (Jon Elswick/AP)

Before the administration did what it said it wouldn’t — extend the Obamacare deadline for some — a Democratic congressman was already working on it.

Rep. Kurt Schrader (Ore.) had no “official” advance knowledge of the White House’s plans when he introduced a measure on March 12 to give states the option to extend open enrollment by a month. But Schrader is “very good at seeing the writing on the wall,” his spokesman said.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Coincidentally, Schrader filed his bill the same day Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified on Capitol Hill that “there is no delay beyond March 31st.” Of course, that wasn’t the first time she’d made that claim. And the administration is adamant that this latest move is not so much an extension as an accommodation.

Still, Schrader commended President Obama on Wednesday for extending the deadline for those who have struggled to enroll — Oregon’s state-based Web site has been particularly disastrous — and sympathized with what “the poor guy has to deal with.”

Yet Schrader told the Loop that the two-week extension feels a bit like an arbitrary time frame chosen as part of a political balancing act. The administration is “overthinking it a bit . . . and the parameters are overly confusing,” he said. “I think my bill to extend the enrollment period makes more sense, but the [extension] is certainly on the right track.”

If the ultimate goal is to get people signed up and to provide health care for the most Americans, the administration should simply extend enrollment “one bloody month,” he said.

Also Wednesday, as it turns out, Schrader’s state got its grace period. The federal government is permitting Oregon to sign people up through its state exchange for an additional 30 days beyond March 31, according to the Oregonian newspaper.

Schrader, who is running for reelection and is expected to hold his seat, according to political forecasters, voted for the Affordable Care Act and stands by its merits but, like many Democrats, decries the rollout as a “horrendous failure.”

No Such Agency logic

Jim Scott, a retired Navy public relations employee, has been trying to get any records on his late father, Paul Scott, a nationally syndicated columnist who was illegally wiretapped by the CIA in 1963.

Scott was looking for any information from 1950 to 1990, but the agency wasn’t very forthcoming — shocking! — though it did give up some documents. So Scott turned to the National Security Agency, thinking the two may have collaborated and the NSA might have some info. (The most helpful agency ended up being the FBI, he said. A similar request to that agency turned up more than 100 pages of documents and accompanying correspondence.)

The NSA denied his request, so Scott appealed. NSA Chief of Staff Elizabeth Brooks, in a Jan. 24 letter, turned down the appeal in somewhat opaque fashion.

“I have concluded that the appropriate response is to continue to neither confirm or deny the existence or nonexistence of any intelligence material on your father,” she said. “To do otherwise when challenged under the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] would result in the exposure of intelligence information, sources, and methods, which could harm our national security and severely undermine NSA activities in general. For example, if NSA denied having information in cases where we had no such information, but remained silent in cases in which the information existed, it would tend to reveal in which activities NSA was engaged.”

Scott is seeking material that is between 24 and 64 years old.

But Brooks wrote, “The fact of the existence or nonexistence of such information is a properly classified matter under Executive Order 13526.”

What price vanity?

Some Cabinet secretaries may be experiencing portrait envy.

The top officials who dreamed of seeing their likenesses forever enshrined in the halls of their agencies will watch wistfully as Michael Chertoff, President George W. Bush’s former homeland security secretary, has his painting unveiled Thursday.

In the name of austerity, Congress included a policy rider in the fiscal 2014 omnibus spending bill banning the government from spending tens of thousands of dollars on the almost-life-size oil portraits of top government officials on their departures.

But it’s just a one-year moratorium (actually less, since the omnibus is from January to October), unless Congress renews the ban or makes it permanent. So nothing is set in stone. Besides, those ornate portraits are multi-year endeavors. Current secretaries, all hope is not lost.

The Department of Homeland Security first awarded a contract to Portraits Inc. for Chertoff’s painting in September 2008 for the bargain price of $30,500, according to USASpending.gov. His predecessor, Tom Ridge , had his portrait-unveiling last May.

That company, according to its Web site, is also tasked with producing former Bush secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s portrait, for which the agency set aside $52,450.

The cost of the portraits has long been a subject of scrutiny, and recent reports looked into the administration’s commissioning of artists to paint its top officials for tens of thousands of dollars apiece. The reporting prompted members of Congress to pursue legislation to stop what one Republican called “a ridiculous and unnecessary luxury.”

So appropriators jumped at the low-hanging fruit and issued that edict, which covers even the president and vice president. (Though, ban or no ban, one government watchdog tells us it’s highly unlikely the Obamas won’t join the other presidents and first ladies whose portraits decorate the East Wing.)

When oil paintings were in vogue (think the Gilbert Stuart era), of course, photographs were not an option. Perhaps a cost-effective modern alternative could be taken with a smartphone and an Instagram filter?

— With Colby Itkowitz

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

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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