HHS Nominee Faces No Questions from Senate Tax Committee About Her Tax 'Errors'
April 2, 2009 - 6:20 PMOnly 11 of the 23 members of the Senate FInance Committee bothered to ask Gov. Kathleen Sebelius questions during her confirmation hearing Thursday, even though two days ago she admitted to possible underpayment of her taxes to the tune of $8,000.
The committee has jurisdiction over tax issues.
What’s more, only 11 senators – seven Democrats and four Republicans – out of a total 23 committee members had questions for Sebelius, who is President Obama’s choice to be secretary of health and human services.
The sparse attendance and short, cordial exchanges between senators and Sebelius was surprising, since the same committee grilled another Obama nominee with tax problems in February -- current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
Sebelius, who had appeared Tuesday before Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was called before the Finance Committee because it oversees Medicare and Medicaid, two of the largest programs HHS administers.
Geithner had faced withering questions from Senate Republicans during his contentious confirmation hearing, questions that eventually led to his now famous admission that his use of tax preparation software TurboTax might have led to his failure to pay nearly $35,000 in taxes.
Sebelius, however, faced no such questioning from the Senate’s tax committee, despite her admission that she could not document claimed charitable donations and had improperly deducted mortgage interest on a home she no longer owned.
The only mention of Sebelius' financial issues came from the governor herself, in response to committee chairman Max Baucus, who asked whether anything in her background might prevent her from executing her duties.
"Well senator, there were a couple of stocks found in my husband's portfolio which have been identified by the ethics officer and we have committed to, if I'm confirmed, divesting those stocks," Sebelius admitted.
Only four of the committee’s 10 Republican members – Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa; Olympia Snowe of Maine; Pat Roberts of Kansas and Mike Enzi of Wyoming -- had any questions for Sebelius.
None of those questions involved Sebelius' tax situation.
Seven Democrats expressed satisfaction with her nomination -- and told the nominee they hope that she will be easily confirmed.
“Governor Sebelius, I want to thank you for your service to our country,” the committee’s chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), said. “I look forward to working with you.”
Other Democratic questions were mostly technical in nature, including questions about her understanding of mental-health funding, potential cost savings in Medicare and fighting fraud in government health-care reimbursements.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) did raise one thorny issue: government-run health insurance. Schumer asked Sebelius whether she thought a public health insurance plan was a good idea.
“Will it put pressure on the for-profit and even not-for profit entities to incorporate even more of the public good,” Schumer asked. “Do you think that a federally guaranteed option could be a gold standard?”
Sebelius answered that a government health insurance plan was definitely “an option” to be included in the health-care reform plan that Congress is expected to receive later this year.
“We have examples throughout the country that are very competitive, very effective strategies where the plans, both public and private, compete, which is exactly what I think we should want to offer the American people,” Sebelius replied. “It absolutely can happen.”
Ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), meanwhile, expressed his desire to work with the Kansas governor if she is confirmed.
“I want to thank you again for your willingness to serve and express again, and that if you are confirmed,” Grassley said. “I look forward to working with you in the days and months ahead.”
Notably absent from today’s questions was any mention of the issue of abortion, despite Sebelius’ rocky record as governor -- a record that critics have described as markedly pro-abortion.
In 2008, she vetoed a measure passed by the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature that strengthened the state’s parental notification law.
That measure would have required adults who take young girls to have an abortion prove they are her parents or legal guardians, required teens to prove their age (a provision intended to discover if a girl had been statutorily raped), and would have prohibited any employee of an abortion clinic from helping a minor obtain a judicial waver allowing her to have an abortion.
Sebelius has also vetoed other pro-life bills, including one requiring an explicit medical reason before allowing a late-term abortion to be performed, and a bill requiring abortionists to report the details of medical conditions necessitating a late-term abortion.
While Sebelius’ nomination may not have faced tough scrutiny from senators, a consortium of seven conservative groups views her as “unfit to lead HHS,” given her tax problems and record on abortion.
(DISCLOSURE: One of the groups that signed the statement is the Media Research Center, the parent company of CNSNews.com. The others are the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, the Susan B. Anthony List, Americans for Tax Reform, Focus on the Family and the American Family Association. )
“Gov. Sebelius may not pay her own taxes, but has no qualms about using tax dollars to pay for others’ abortions,” the groups said in a statement. “Even before she reported her tax issues, Gov. Sebelius was manifestly unqualified to run America's health care system, as illustrated by her coddling of the abortion industry at the expense of Kansas women's safety.
“As Secretary of the HHS, Gov. Sebelius will be tasked with implementing Obama's massive health care changes,” they said. “Someone so indebted to the abortion industry that she vetoes common-sense provisions is incapable of administering any meaningful change or reform in the health care sector.”
Abortion rights groups, meanwhile, have nothing but praise for the governor.
NARAL Pro-Choice America President Cecile Richards called her “an excellent choice” to lead HHS.
“Gov. Sebelius is a strong advocate for health care reform and has a proven track record of increasing access to affordable care,” Richards said in a statement.
“She has a strong record of supporting commonsense prevention policies that improve health outcomes. Her ability to work in a bipartisan fashion will serve her well as the Obama dministration and Congress tackle the critical issue of health care reform for American families.”
Sebelius’ prospective boss, President Obama, meanwhile, said his nominee had a "remarkable intellect, unquestioned integrity and the kind of pragmatic wisdom you’ll tend to find in a Kansan."