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July 24, 2014

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Let’s blame Canada — or fire Sebelius

If you’re a citizen who tries to keep up with current affairs, your latest responsibility is having a strong opinion about the troubled rollout of the health insurance marketplace.

Really makes you miss the government shutdown, doesn’t it? Try leading a lively dinner table conversation on software coding errors.

The Democrats are depressed. The Republicans enjoy pointing out that the Obamacare rollout has been a mess. But they obviously can’t pretend to be upset that people are finding it hard to sign up for a program their party wanted to kill, eviscerate and stomp into tiny pieces, which would then be fed to a tank of ravenous eels.

Well, actually, they can.

“I haven’t heard one of you apologize to the American public,” Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia sternly told government contractors who had worked on the HealthCare.gov website.

McKinley’s party recently shut down everything from the national parks to preschool programs while costing the economy an estimated $24 billion. Nobody apologized. Perhaps they’ll write a note this weekend.

“I’m damned angry that I and 700,000 Texans I represent have been misled, misled and misled,” Rep. Pete Olson said.

The only thing that could conceivably make Olson angrier would be if the Obamacare site was working so well that Texans could get health insurance as easily as they can order a chrome scarf holder from Amazon.com.

On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held the first of what will be a very long line of congressional hearings on the subject of the botched rollout. The private contractors claimed, in the most oblique language possible, that their own individual pieces of the operation had gone swimmingly.

Meanwhile, the committee members told the private contractors about their personal technological expertise, which sounded so extensive it’s a wonder that the House of Representatives hasn’t invented its own search engine.

“I was in small business for 22 years, in the radio business. We dealt with software upgrades and changes in systems and all that ...”

“When I was in developing software ...”

“Being a computer science major from Rice University and a former naval aviator who could not afford to have my computer drop off-line as I’m rolling in my plane to drop a torpedo to stop a Russian submarine from launching a ballistic missile, a nuclear missile at our country. ...”

That last one was Olson again.

It is very possible that you missed this hearing. Perhaps you were at work. Perhaps you have taken a vow never to listen to any discussion in which the word “functionality” is used on a regular basis.

The bottom line is that the startup was terrible. We’re just going to wait and see how well the administration does in fixing things. White House officials have promised to bring in “the best and brightest,” which is encouraging unless you are old enough to remember that “the best and the brightest” was what they called the guys who gave us the war in Vietnam.

In the meantime, keep things simple and just find somebody to blame. A few suggestions:

Canada

The major contractor on the Web job was CGI Federal, which is a subsidiary of a Canadian company. Perhaps this is all a Canadian plot. Perhaps the Canadians were jealous that the United States was on the verge of creating a health care system so much more exciting than their own single-payer version. Remember, these are the exact same people who sent us Justin Bieber.

Kathleen Sebelius

This is an extremely popular option. Fire the secretary of health and human services. The Republican National Committee has a petition drive demanding that Sebelius be canned. Democrats are less enthusiastic, but a lot of them feel that President Barack Obama should fire somebody, and really, it’s not going to be the secretary of agriculture.

Also, Sebelius has a family vacation home in northern Michigan. You can probably see Canada from her house.

Technology

Younger people are shocked that the Obama White House, which is supposed to be so technologically savvy, can’t manage a website rollout. They express this opinion through multiple devices that are seamlessly interlinked to one another, and to their friends’ multiple devices, and their friends’ friends’.

Many older people just shrug. It’s about computers. How could it possibly work out the first time around?

I am definitely going with option two, in my capacity as a person who has never recovered from the day my company changed email systems. Let alone the time my cellphone started responding to all prompts by offering to call the old office number for former Sen. Trent Lott.

The White House just has to call a tech. And then another tech. And then another tech. And then maybe buy a new cellphone.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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