Part of the problem with the Jonathan Gruber “stupid” story is that it’s a shiny object for the political world to stare at for a while. It offers more heat than light. It’s a bouncing ball for political insiders to chase after, despite its relative insignificance.
But since it’s likely to soon be the subject of congressional hearings, and since your crazy uncle who watches Fox News all day will be talking about nothing else at Thanksgiving, let’s grudgingly tackle this week’s Most Important Story Of All Time As Agreed Upon By Republicans And The Beltway Media.
Congressional Republicans seized Wednesday on controversial comments made by a former health-care consultant to the Obama administration, with one leading House conservative suggesting that hearings could be called in response as part of the GOP effort to dismantle the law in the next Congress and turn public opinion ahead of the 2016 election.“We may want to have hearings on this,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), an influential voice among GOP hardliners and a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in an interview at the Capitol. “We shouldn’t be surprised they were misleading us.”
In the unlikely event you haven’t heard about this, at issue are comments made last year by Jonathan Gruber at a panel discussion.
“This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes,” Gruber said. “Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the ‘stupidity of the American voter’ or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.”
And it’s these words, captured on video, that have sent Republican politics into a frenzy. It’s proof, the right insists, that the Affordable Care Act was passed in a fraudulent way, intended to take advantage of the public’s “stupidity.”
Conservatives are planning congressional hearings to scrutinize Gruber’s comments in granular detail. Fox News is obsessed. The right is pushing the Supreme Court to recognize and consider Gruber’s comments in the upcoming King v. Burwell case.
And while it’s nearly impossible to slow down a snowball of spin while it’s still picking up speed, now would be an excellent time for everyone to pause, take a deep breath, and appreciate the degree to which this story isn’t quite what it appears to be.
First, there’s the obvious question most of the country is probably asking: Who the hell is Jonathan Gruber? Some on the right would you believe he was directly responsible for writing every word of the law; some on the left would have you believe he was an irrelevant outsider with little influence. The truth in this case is somewhere in between: Gruber is a respected economist who helped shape the blueprint for both Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan and the ACA.
He was, in effect, an influential numbers-cruncher who had a hand in shaping the system. Gruber didn’t work on Capitol Hill or the White House, but he was a paid contractor.
Second, if you consider the context of Gruber’s remarks, he notes that the Affordable Care Act “was written in a tortured way” for largely political reasons, which is true. As was widely discussed at the time – i.e., during the 2009 congressional debate, before the ACA passed – policymakers were constantly trying to accommodate perceptions when drafting the proposal, avoiding even hints of controversy because they were terrified of political blowback. Lawmakers in both parties do this all the time on key issues.
But that’s a key detail that’s been largely ignored this week: Gruber wasn’t saying ACA proponents hoped to exploit public ignorance; ACA proponents lived in constant fear of public ignorance derailing the entire effort.
As Neil Irwin put it, “Here’s the dirty little secret: Mr. Gruber was exposing something sordid yet completely commonplace about how Congress makes policy of all types: Legislators frequently game policy to fit the sometimes arbitrary conventions by which the Congressional Budget Office evaluates laws and the public debates them.”
What about the notion that a “lack of transparency” created a “huge political advantage”? At face value, that doesn’t even make any sense – the entirety of the ACA process couldn’t have been much more transparent. There were countless open hearings, debates, meetings, and reports, all played out under the spotlight over the course of a year. Congressional Republicans have worked in secret, behind closed doors, on an ACA alternative for five years, but the process of creating “Obamacare” was the polar opposite.
The problem here, again, is context. Jon Chait explained:
Gruber was not talking about passing the law in a non-transparent fashion. Conservatives believe the law was passed non-transparently, but nobody who supported it considers this anything but a bizarre description of one of the most drawn-out public and legislative debates in the history of Congress. Gruber was surely referring to the non-transparent mechanism of regulating insurance companies, causing them to charge less to the sick and more to the healthy, without Congress having to carry out those transfers through direct taxes.
The Washington Post reported on Gruber’s comments, saying the policy “was crafted in a deliberately deceptive way in order to pass Congress.” But here’s the question the political world should be asking themselves right now: what deception? What exactly did we not know about the law before that we know now?
There is nothing; that’s the point. Indeed, as Sarah Kliff noted today, “If Obamacare allies were indeed trying to dupe American voters into liking and supporting health reform, they did a pretty terrible job.”
One idea that comes up in MIT health economist Jon Gruber’s recent comments about Obamacare’s drafting is that legislators were able to take advantage of “the stupidity of the American voter” to make Obamacare sound more appealing. And putting aside whether or not that was actually the plan, most survey data we have suggests that the lack of awareness about Obamacare is hurting, not helping, the law’s popularity.
And that’s where the irony kicks in. Republicans are running around screaming, “Obamacare’s architects think Americans are stupid!” but it’s the law’s opponents that have spent the last several years misleading the public, creating baseless fears, and exploiting public confusion in order to help sabotage the American system for craven, partisan reasons.
So where does that leave us? With a sideshow. The Affordable Care Act is working extremely well and every Republican prediction – literally, every single one – about the law’s failings has turned out to be wrong. Instead of talking about that, the right has decided what really matters is a year-old panel discussion in which an economist Americans haven’t heard of raised a legitimate policy point in a clumsy and offensive way.
Paul Waldman added, “Their reaction [to the Gruber story] shows that for all the talk of ‘governing,’ the incoming GOP Congress is going to treat the next two years like one long episode of the Rush Limbaugh show. The most urgent question will be not whether they can make some kind of positive change, or even whether they can make progress on their particular policy goals. The question is whether they can score points, win the morning, get the administration on the defensive. For that, you don’t have to get anything done; every day is a new opportunity to express your outrage, which is an end in itself.”
Our politics really has to be smarter than this.