In a presidential race, incumbency has real advantages: You have Air Force One to fly you around, media coverage whenever you need it and, if you are President Obama, Cabinet officials like Kathleen Sebelius willing to bend and even break rules to aid your re-election.
According to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, Sebelius -- Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services -- violated federal law in February when she appeared at a North Carolina gala hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group.
During the event, Sebelius urged the audience to vote for the president's re-election, calling it "hugely important." This was a clear violation of the Hatch Act, which forbids officials from using their office to campaign.
Sebelius had even been warned beforehand by her staff to avoid any election-related comments, according to a special counsel probe released last month. After questions were raised, Sebelius simply had her appearance retroactively reclassified as an appearance in her private capacity and reimbursed costs the government paid for her to campaign. She expressed annoyance at the probe, telling the special counsel that her violations were only "technical and minor."
But Sebelius is using her office to help Obama's campaign in a much bigger way than any mere campaign appearance. She is now using her position as head of HHS to blunt -- temporarily -- the effects of a provision of President Obama's health care law that could otherwise be very damaging to his re-election prospects.
To pay for other parts of the law, Obamacare shifts about $216 billion over the next decade away from Medicare Advantage, a program that provides health coverage through private plans under contract with government. About a quarter of all Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in this program, which allows some services not covered under traditional Medicare. The shift of funds away from this program will result in fewer services, hike rates or both. That would have become apparent during Medicare's open enrollment period, which begins this month -- a few short weeks before an election.
Rather than let the president face seniors' wrath over his cuts to Medicare Advantage right before the election, Sebelius amended an existing "demonstration project" that Obamacare established to pay bonuses to the most efficient Medicare Advantage plans. She changed this program so that it will now provide bonuses not just to the best, five-star rated plans, but also to middling ones with ratings as low as three stars.
This will offset 71 percent of the Medicare Advantage cuts in 2012. In short, Sebelius is hiding the pain in store for Medicare Advantage recipients until the election is over.
It's hard to read this any other way. By rewarding mediocre plans, Sebelius is pretty much defeating the purpose of the demonstration project -- to give plans incentives to improve. She is also stretching the definition of "demonstration project" to the breaking point. At $8.3 billion, this one costs more than the previous 85 demonstration projects combined, going back to 1995.
It is not clear that Sebelius has the authority to spend government money this way, either. A report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office was unusually blunt: The demonstration project was "unlikely to achieve its research goals and raises legal concerns" about whether HHS exceeded its authority. The GAO recommended the project be canceled.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the GOP's one-man CSI team, has been probing the project. The response of Sebelius's HHS has been, in essence, "LA-LA-LA, we can't hear you!" In congressional testimony in July, an official simply said they disagreed with the GAO's findings and plowed ahead with the project.
Issa has demanded that HHS turn over internal communications regarding the program and set a deadline of Friday. Given Sebelius' record, one might expect her to follow up sometime after Nov. 6.
Sean Higgins (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.