Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, told a House committee yesterday that she did nothing wrong by suggesting to companies she regulates that they support a group publicizing the Affordable Care Act. Let's consider the absurdity of that position by looking at the arguments behind it.
Sebelius told the House Education and Workforce Committee that she didn't explicitly ask Johnson & Johnson, Ascension Health and Kaiser Permanente to give money to Enroll America, a nonprofit organization run by a former Barack Obama administration official designed to get people to use the law's new insurance exchanges. She only called "to discuss the organization and suggest that the entities look at the organization."
If you were the person on the other end of that call, you might see that as a distinction without a difference. You don't get to be a corporate executive if you can't take a hint, and when you're dealing with an agency whose decisions determine your success, you may choose to err on the side of caution.
Sebelius also pointed out her predecessor under President George W. Bush did the same thing, urging companies to help promote the 2003 prescription drug benefit. "Bush did it too" is an interesting defense to hear from a Democratic Cabinet secretary. That fact may make it harder for Republicans to criticize Sebelius's fundraising, but it doesn't make it kosher.
Other arguments defending Sebelius are equally shaky. Sure, House Republicans have made it harder for the secretary to promote the law by restricting funds. But necessity is seldom an acceptable defense for untoward behavior; if it were, the Obama administration could justify all sorts of things based on Republican obstructionism.
Another argument is that the companies Sebelius contacted will benefit if people decide to enroll in the exchanges. That's probably true: If the number of consumers for health insurance increases, insurers, hospitals and drug-makers should see their revenue go up, all else being equal. But if giving money to Enroll America is in these companies' best interest, why would Sebelius need to call them in the first place? Their executives aren't doorknobs.
It can be hard to feel sympathetic for health-care companies, many of which have stoked fear and misunderstanding about the health-care law, or allowed their trade associations and Republicans to do so on their behalf. But even people who wouldn't normally rush to the industry's defense should ask whether it's appropriate for Sebelius to have made these calls, however noble the purpose.
(Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)