Obamacare adviser Jonathan Gruber gives Democrats new headache

Economist Jonathan Gruber listens during a conference in Boston, Mass., March 12, 2014. (Photo by Dominick Reuter/Reuters)
Economist Jonathan Gruber listens during a conference in Boston, Mass., March 12, 2014.

Congress returned this week to a looming immigration shutdown, a new climate change deal, and leadership elections in both parties, but recently unearthed remarks by Jonathan Gruber, a prominent architect of the Affordable Care Act, may have generated the most buzz.

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The comments, dug up by an amateur researcher, came from a conference a year ago in which Gruber said that the bill was “written a tortured way to make sure the [Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes.” The "mandate" is the law's controversial requirement that everyone must carry health insurance or otherwise face a fine. 

The real kicker, though, was what Gruber seemed to say next: that the Obama administration had relied on "the stupidity of the American voter" to push the law through. 

"In terms of risk-rated subsidies, in a law that said healthy people are going to pay in — if it made explicit that healthy people are gonna pay in, sick people get money, it would not have passed," Gruber said. "Okay — just like … the 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 get anything to pass."

In an interview with msnbc’s Ronan Farrow on Tuesday, Gruber said he “spoke inappropriately” and regretted his comments.

Gruber's remarks bubbled up in conservative media all week then boiled over into Washington on Thursday as Republican lawmakers announced possible hearings on the matter. 

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Some of Gruber’s remarks were uncomfortable -- if impolitic -- straight talk, and other parts were simply inaccurate. Ironically, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act because the court concluded the health care law's mandate was unconstitutional but legal because it was actually a tax in disguise -- essentially the same argument Gruber was making.

As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait noted, the “lack of transparency” line refers not to a conspiracy to hide the law’s drafting process, but to the fact that the basic structure of the law, which requires people to purchase health insurance, obscures some of the costs healthy people -- especially those who don’t receive subsidies -- pay in higher premiums in order to ensure sicker people can get affordable insurance. 

None of these were conversations Democrats were dying to have, but “the stupidity of the American voter or whatever” comment put Gruber into next-level radioactive territory. 

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi managed to pour gasoline on the fire at a news conference Thursday by downplaying Gruber's role in the health care debate. 

"I don't know who he is,” Pelosi told reporters. “He didn't help write our bill.” But as reporters pointed out almost immediately, Pelosi had cited Gruber’s research by name during the health care debate. Her staff later clarified to The Washington Post that she didn’t know him “personally.”

By the end of the day, Democratic opposition researchers were trying to tie Gruber to Republicans by peddling a 2006 video of then-GOP Gov. Mitt Romney thanking him for his help at a ceremony celebrating the passage of Massachusetts’ universal health care law. “Jonathan Gruber at MIT devoted hours and hours to an essential econometric model,” Romney said at the time. 

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Democrats had already used Gruber’s dual role in the Massachusetts health care law and Affordable Care Act during the 2012 election as part of a broader argument about how the law was modeled on Romney’s. This time the connection was more blunt -- seemingly aimed at clubbing Romney with any association at all. 

This isn’t the first time Gruber has created problems for Democrats this year. The same researcher who dug up his “stupidity” comments also found an old video back in July in which he suggested the Affordable Care Act meant for insurance subsidies to go only to states who set up their own health care exchanges. That footage was a bombshell with potential national implications, as it's one of the only pieces of evidence bolstering a challenge to Obamacare that argues subsidies can’t go to federal exchanges in states that have refused to set up a state version. 

Gruber said he misspoke, and politicians and staffers who worked on the law have maintained that the law was always intended to grant subsidies to both exchanges, but the case is going to the Supreme Court and supporters of the law are worried the law could be in jeopardy.