Friday, October 25, 2013

McArdle - "Stop the Madness"

I’m a longtime critic of federal contracting rules, which prevent some corruption at ruinous expense in money, quality and speed. But federal contracting rules are not what made the administration delay writing the rules and specifications necessary to build the system until 2013. Nor to delay the deadline for states to declare whether they’d be building an exchange, in the desperate hope that a few more governors might decide -- in February 2013! -- to build a state system after all. Any state that decided to start such a project at that late date would have had little hope of building anything that worked, but presumably angry voters would be calling the governor instead of HHS.
Federal contracting codes, so far as I am aware, do not emit intoxicating gases that might have caused senior HHS officials to decide that it was a good idea to take on the role of lead contractor -- a decision equivalent to someone who has never even hung a picture deciding that they should become their own general contractor and build a house. Nor can those rules explain their lunatic response when they were told that the system was not working -- “failure was not an option."
Nor can you really blame the Republicans -- an argument that makes sense only if you don’t examine it very closely. It starts by assuming (but never stating) that the administration passed a law that didn't work as written, and then posits a civic duty for the opposition not to oppose laws that they oppose, but instead to help the majority party turn an unworkable law into something more to said party’s liking. This is absurd. Moreover, it’s not even a very good explanation for most of these problems. Maybe CMS turned lead contractor because they couldn’t get more funds to hire private help, but lack of funds does not explain why HHS took so long to write regulations and specifications, keeping insurers at loose ends until as late as this summer, and preventing their biggest contractor from writing code until spring. It does not explain why officials decided to launch a system that was so badly behind schedule, or to keep insisting, against all evidence, that it wasn’t broken. What explains this long train of poor decision-making is some combination of bureaucratic inertia, a desire to hide what they were doing from voters who might not like it and a terrifying insouciance about how easy it might be to build a system of this size and complexity.

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