Page: Jonathan Gruber’s ‘stupidity’
Was Obamacare sold on a pack of lies or just political spin?
Questions like that have turned Jonathan Gruber, who helped to create President Barack Obama’s health care law, into a possible threat to its survival.
That’s why Obamacare opponents can barely contain the glee beneath their outspoken outrage over the MIT economist’s insensitive remarks about voters’ intelligence and the Affordable Care Act he helped to create.
Their delight comes largely from audible confirmation, delivered with Gruber’s sarcasm, of the right wing’s worst stereotypes of liberals as arrogant, underhanded, smarty-pants elitists —as if conservatives never, ever would fit that description.
In a year-old video that recently surfaced, Gruber describes Obamacare’s legislative history like this:
“This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure (the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office) did not score the mandate as taxes,” he said at an academic conference. “If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies, OK?”
My comment: Excuse me, but I am shocked, shocked to hear that an administration would try to shape legislation in a way that will make it look good to the CBO.
Seriously, Washington seems to have more euphemisms for taxes than most people have for sex. Substitutions for the T-word famously have been running amok in Washington for decades. They include “fees,” “inflows,” “balancing,” “closing loopholes” and “revenue enhancements.”
Yet Gruber happily sounds like he’s just discovered such age-old spin. “Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage,” he says, “and basically, you know, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically, that was really, really critical to getting this thing to pass.”
Oh, please. As the president has responded to Gruber, the Obamacare debate was hardly a secret. It came in two Senate committees, three house committees, extensive public hearings and days of floor debate preceded passage, not to mention weeks of fruitless attempts between Republican and Democratic Senate negotiators to reach a compromise onto which Republicans might sign. In the end, they didn’t, but not for lack of trying.
Gruber again: “If you have a law that makes explicit that healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it wouldn’t have passed.”
Oh, really? That’s how health insurance works. Since when have risk pools been too hard for us dumb yokels to understand?
But the most potentially damaging sound bite emerged back in July in a Gruber video from 2012. That’s when he told another conference that Americans who need tax credits to help them pay for their premiums can receive them only for insurance purchased on “exchanges established by the state.”
“If you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits,” he said. By denying subsidies to those who didn’t have exchanges, he said, lawmakers had hoped to coerce states into setting up their own exchanges.
Only 13 states have done so, yet the administration has been awarding tax credits to plans bought on the federal exchange by citizens in the other 37 states anyway.
Now the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that claims the administration has been violating its own law. If the plaintiffs win, subsidies could unravel and take Obamacare with it.
Of course, Congress could fix it. But these days that’s about as likely as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi joining the National Rifle Association.
Yet, the administration argues, there is abundant evidence in the ACA’s legislative history that lawmakers never intended to deprive citizens of health care if their states did not have an exchange.
So why did Gruber say it? In a phone interview with The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn last summer, he said he didn’t remember. “I was speaking off-the-cuff,” he told Cohn. “It was just a mistake.”
Gruber’s projections of the law’s impact always have assumed that all eligible people would get subsides, even though he did not assume that all states would run their own exchanges.
Gruber’s own research undermines his reliability as a witness against the program he helped to create. The only one left looking stupid is him.
Clarence Page writes for The Chicago Tribune.