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Website wars begin

Republicans and Democrats jockey on Obamacare rollout.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Republicans and Democrats jockey on Obamacare rollout.

Obamacare's problem-ridden website got its first official public scrutiny Thursday when Congress marched executives from the contracting firms that built the site up to Capitol Hill.

Some questions were serious. Others were pure political theater.  Things even got so heated before the House Energy and Commerce hearing that Rep. Frank Pallone shouted out, "I will not yield to this monkey court!" 

As the Obamacare website prepares to stay in the spotlight for the coming weeks and months, the first hearing is an early test of the themes to watch. Here are the takeaways: 

1. Republican leaders line: we want this to work. 

Rep. Greg Walden might have thought it was worth a government shutdown to defund the government, saying on the eve of the shutdown that "it's important that we continue the fight. But now he insists he wants the law to work and that is what the new scrutiny is about. 

"I don't want this to be a failure. I want you all to get this fixed," said said Walden, a close John Boehner ally and a member of the House leadership. Chairman Fred Upton opened the hearing on a similar note: "This is not about blame—it's about accountability, transparency, and fairness for the American public." 

Democrats say this is disingenuous. But on Thursday, the approach also yielded actual results: Walden thoroughly questioned the contractors about when they actually conducted the testing of their components of the site, who they reported to, and whether they believed that was enough time. He was aggressive in grilling them, but he didn't try to corner them unfairly. 

CGI Federal, one of the biggest contractors for, admitted under questioning that full testing of the site didn't begin until two weeks before its October 1 launch. "Did that give your company adequate time to make sure it was integrated, that it worked?" Walden said "It would have been better if we had had more time," said CGI Federal executive Cheryl Campbell. How much more time? "Months would be nice," said Andy Slavitt of Optum, another contractor. 

The disclosure confirmed an earlier report that pointed to major red flags that went up before the website's launch. Actual evidence, and pretty damning at that. 

2. Some conservatives are gleeful -- and it could cost them. 

Many of the House Republicans who first agitated for the Obamacare shutdown have revived their attacks against the name with renewed vigor, pointing a finger directly at the president. "It's not just a focus on the failure of the website," explained Rep. Steve Scalise, chair of the Republican Study Committee. "It's a focus on the failure of the law in general—the fact that there were so many broken promises made by the president."  

But the most heated moment of the entire hearing came when Rep. Joe Barton insisted that code in the website constituted a HIPAA privacy violation, which read "You have no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding any communications or data transiting." The contractors sat silently as Barton tried to grill them.

"Are you aware this is in the source code, yes or no? You know it's not HIPPA compliant—yes or no, you're under oath!" he shouted. Campbell replied it wouldn't have been her decision in the first place. Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone immediately rebutted Barton's claim, arguing that HIPAA wouldn't apply as no actual health information was being submitted. Then Barton tried to cut him off. "I will not yield to this monkey court! I am not yielding!" Pallone shouted, as Upton banged the gavel for order.

The verdict? Barton's claim fails on two counts, according to privacy experts at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

First, as Pallone said, the exchanges don't appear to be covered by HIPAA. Second, the language actually never appears on the site itself—they were back-end comments inside the code, so it would be impossible for a user to sign off on them. "These words were never displayed to anyone," says Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the Center's chief technologist. "More than likely this is a not-very-funny joke on behalf of some coder."

3. Democrats are torn

Democrats have been rushing to defend their party's signature achievement, while also insisting to the public that they're taking the problems very seriously. That's resulted in a bit of political whiplash from the party and more than a few questions.

"Every day we hear more stories of people saving thousands of dollars and getting the security of quality health insurance," Rep. Henry Waxman, ranking Democrat on the committee, declared in his opening remarks. "I remind my colleagues that the last perfect law came off the top of Mount Sinai with Moses," Rep. John Dingell said, as the audience chuckled.

The Democrats who expressed outright indignation about the problems largely held back from using the administration as a punching bag. Rep. Anna Eschoo, for instance, pointed a finger at federal contractors "who say everything is all right when it isn't."

"You keep speaking about unexpected volumes, Ms. Campbell," Eschoo told the CGI Federal executive. "But there are thousands of websites that handle far more traffic. I think that's kind of a lame excuse." 

4. Contractors excuse themselves, blame the Obama administration.

Each of the four contractors testifying on Thursday insisted his or her company's contribution to the website was up to snuff, but said they were simply cogs in the administration's rollout plan.

"CGI Federal delivered the functionality required by CMS," Campbell said in her testimony. Did her company ever feel like they weren't ready for the launch? "It was not our position to do so," Campbell said. "Let me clarify—CMS had the ultimate decision for go live or no go. We were there to support our client."

Their central point is right: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid was the manager of the entire project, responsible for making sure the components and the whole website were adequately tested. But House Republicans pushed the witnesses to cough up the names of those responsible. 

"Who is your point of contact at CMS?" Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois asked Campbell. "Give me a name."

"Henry Chao," she replied, hesitantly.

"Give me another name," he said.

"Michele Snyder."

"Got another one?" 

"Uh…Peter Oh," she said. 

Rep. Renee Elmers reassured the contractors toward the end of the hearing. "You have permission to throw CMS under the bus as far as I'm concerned," she told them. 

5. The Obama administration still has a lot of questions it hasn't answered yet.

It's still unclear who made certain key decisions that could be responsible for the site's deeply problematic launch, and why those decisions were made, as the hearing confirmed.

There was no single, central manager for the project, as former White House adviser Zeke Emanuel has pointed out, and the contractors who testified didn't seem to know exactly who was in charge at CMS either.  They also made it clear that they didn't think there was enough time allotted to testing the website. Optum/QSSI said they had even informed CMS before launched that there were some problems, and it's unclear what happened with those complaints. 

The contractors said officials also made a late-breaking decision to prohibit users from browsing different insurance plans before purchasing them—another step that led to a bottleneck. "We don't know who made that decision or when," said Slavitt, the Optum executive. The contractors also said they had no idea who was involved in the "tech surge" meant to fix the site.

Later in the day, CMS held a press call that also provided few answers: The spokeswoman claimed not to know how many applications came from federally-run exchanges; who aside from Jeff Zients is involved in the tech surge; whether Kathleen Sebelius knew about any problems before launch; and when the site will be working, as Josh Barro points out. 

Some of those questions may finally be answered when Sebelius appears before this committee next week. Without that critical information, legislators attempting to scrutinize the problem may end up running little more than a "monkey court."