Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, already unpopular on the right, stoked her critics on Thursday by saying that the majority of those asking for her resignation are "people I don't work for." Which, breaking out the semantics, is true.
There's no question that Sebelius' statement didn't make her unsteady position any better. In the wake of the failed rollout of the Healthcare.gov website, the Obama administration would probably have preferred Sebelius not get confrontational. It's clear that's what she was doing, as you can see in the clip at right. Next week, she's scheduled to testify about the site before a House committee — an appearance that will certainly be hostile. After being battered for months as the public face of Obamacare, Sebelius' remarks — quote: "The majority of people calling me to resign, I would say, are people I don't work for" — didn't help.
"[H]ere we are at a point where Kathleen Sebelius is saying that she doesn't work for all of us. Well, I have news for her, she does."
This is one of the hoary kernels of Americanism, this idea that the government works for you. That's the relationship that's been fostered since the Constitution was ratified: Government and You, working together. But what does it mean? The government — comprised of Americans — does work that is of use to Americans, paid for by Americans. So where's the government, as opposed to the you? Who does Kathleen Sebelius work for?
Her comment was a pointed reference to a letter signed by 33 House Republicans calling for President Obama to fire Sebelius. Those 33, you won't be surprised to learn, closely overlap with the hard-right Republicans that encouraged the Republican strategy at the end of September to shut down the government in an attempt to block Obamacare. The website has severe problems, yes, but a lot of these 33 would happily have signed this letter even before that point.
Sebelius, in fact, doesn't work for those members of Congress. She serves at the pleasure of the president — her boss — and the people she serves are that nebulous "you." She "works for" Obama in the sense of "he is my boss at my job;" she "works for" "You" in the sense of "the work that she does is meant to be for the benefit of all Americans." These 33 members of the House are Americans, so she does "work for" them, in the second sense above. But not in the first sense.
Now, you're welcome to point out that Obama himself has bosses — You, the American people. Americans love this argument. Get pulled over by a cop, yell at him that you pay his salary. It's a great cliché. But as people who are not teenagers quickly realize, that's a dumb thing to say. We all pay tiny, tiny, tiny increments of every member of government's salary; in the broader sense of the economy, we all pay for each other's salaries, too. You pay my salary, in part, by coming to this site and seeing our great ads and buying those great products and then those companies give people at Atlantic Media money for more ads. (I don't really understand how this all works, apparently.) But the point is: the flow of income tax to cop is even less direct than the flow of purchase price to salesperson. You don't get to fire a bad waiter at a restaurant; similarly, you don't get to fire Kathleen Sebelius.
It isn't only those 33 people calling for Sebelius to be tossed; the response to her comments have shown that, clearly. So let's say that all of America gets to decide on who runs Health and Human Services. All of the big hazy You gets to come together and say: we are deciding who should run this important government program. And just for kicks, let's do it last November, pitting the man that hired Sebelius up against another contender for the job, and let America pick who they want.
That's how the republic works. We are a representative democracy, in which we pick leaders to make decisions and then, when possible, hold them accountable. Granted, it's hard to hold termed-out Barack Obama accountable, but we nonetheless did decide — 66 million of the You to 61 million of the You — that her boss got another four years. So do those 33 members of the House or the 61 million that voted to toss Obama somehow get to trump the 66 million? Do states that went for Romney get to hire their own HHS head? It's tendentious, yes, but that's what the response to Sebelius' (again: dumb!) comments has suggested. I don't like Sebelius, and she works for me, so she should be fired.
Not how it works. This thing where we assume that the government serves at our (singular) pleasure instead of our (collective) pleasure probably isn't new, but it certainly seems to be more commonly expressed when those who've traditionally (or recently) held power suddenly see that power diminished.
But maybe you disagree. If so, have me fired. You do pay my salary, after all.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.