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Lamar Alexander: Sebelius fundraising ‘arguably an even bigger issue’ than Iran-Contra

(Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP)

Sen. Lamar Alexander is ranking Republican on the Senate committee that oversees health policy. On Saturday, he compared Health and Human Services Sec. Kathleen Sebelius’ fundraising for non-profits that support the health care law to the Iran-Contra Scandal. Since then, Sen. Alexander has asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate her fundraising.

Sen. Alexander and I spoke Monday about the Iran-Contra comparison, how HHS should be handling Obamacare and what happens next. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Sarah Kliff: You’ve been one of the first Republican senators to raise concerns about the secretary’s fundraising for Obamacare. What would you like to see happen next?

Lamar Alexander: I’d like for her to stop. One issue is if she’s raising money from the people she regulates. But I’m more concerned about her using private funding and private organizations to do what Congress has refused to do. I and other members of congress are going to ask GAO to look into the extent she’s coordinating with Enroll America or other organizations.

The reason I used the analogy to Iran-Contra scandal is this administration’s persistent thumbing of its nose at Article 1 of the Constitution because that made it very clear that the purpose of creating Congress is to curb executive power.

SK: I wanted to follow up on the Iran-Contra analogy. That seems like an awfully strong historical example to pick in this situation.

LA: This is arguably an even bigger issue because, in Iran-Contra, you had $30 million that was spent by Oliver North through private organizations for a purpose congress refused to authorize, in support of the rebels. Here, you're wanting to spend millions more in support of private organizations to do something that Congress has refused.

SK: So who are the rebels in this analogy?

LA: The rebels were the private organization. Enroll America is the private organization. But the difference is the cause. The cause in the first case was the cause of rebels in Nicaragua.  And the cause here is to implement Obamacare. Congress has refused to appropriate more for that cause. The administration seems to be making a decision that's called augmenting an appropriation. Its a constitutional offense that's the issue.

SK: I won't press on this much longer, but the causes seem quite different, between implementing a domestic policy and supporting the Contra rebels who were known to be killing people.

LA: If you read the report of the Iran-Contra select committee, it said that the executive cannot make an end run around Congress by raising money privately and spending it. That seems to be happening here. That was essentially the problem. There the money came from a different place, but if you look at my statement [the Iran-Contra report said] "a president whose appropriation requests were rejected by Congress could raise money from private sources or third countries for armies, military actions, arms systems, and even domestic programs."

It’s the same kind of offense to the Constitution. It’s the same kind of thumbing your nose at Article 1.

SK: When I talk to HHS about this issue, they essentially point the finger back at  Congress, saying they're stuck in an impossible situation of having to implement a law without Congressional appropriations. That they've essentially been forced to turn to private fundraising because Congress has denied their requests.

LA: That sounds like a guilty plea. If that’s what they're saying is that Congress has refused to appropriate the money, then you can't do it [implement Obamacare]. That's a curb on the executive.

Let me give you an example. President Bush and I had asked Congress to appropriate a half-billion dollars to school vouchers. We didn't get it, and we were disappointed. But we did not go out and form a corporation to pay for it. That would have been a problem.

SK: That seems a bit different to me. Here they're trying to carry out a law that Congress passed. What you're talking about is creating a brand-new program.

LA: There is a law against what they're doing and the GAO has also said an agency may not augment appropriations from outside sources. This isn't a complicated thing. If the administration asks for $5 and Congress appropriates $4, that's what they get. If the government creates a subterfuge by going outside the government, to raise money through a private entity, that's a violation of the law.

SK: How quickly do you expect action to be taken on this? Obviously this is an important time for the administration, with the launch of much of the health law nearing.

LA: I and other members of Congress will send a letter this week to GAO asking them to investigate if Sebelius is coordinating with these outside groups to do what congress has refused to do. I and others, I’ve sent a letter to Sec. Sebelius asking her a series of questions. I would hope the inspector general [at HHS] would become interested. I hope the Secretary will rethink what she’s doing and stay within the authorization of appropriations, not try to make an end run.