Obamacare Architect: I Wanted to Sound Smart

Jonathan Gruber, the economist who helped design Romneycare and the Affordable Care Act, falls on his sword before Congress.

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Jonathan Gruber is a professor of economics at MIT who holds PhD from Harvard and has a 17-page CV filled with all sort of honors, awards and fellowships. So, of course, the first question that Gruber was asked when he appeared before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee on Tuesday was “Are you stupid?”

Gruber, a prominent health economist, played an important role in the design of both Romneycare in Massachusetts and Obamacare nationally. He appeared before the committee in an attempt to offer a mea culpa for a series of remarks he made about the Affordable Care Act over the last few years, including his contention that the bill was deliberately opaque and passed only because of “the stupidity of the American voter.”

In his prepared remarks (PDF) and after heated questioning from Republican members, Gruber repeatedly apologized for what he called “glib, thoughtless, really inexcusable language” in his comments. He reiterated the statements “I am not a politician” and “I am not a political advisor” so often that it seemed like a verbal tic.

Relatively few Democrats on the committee attended the hearing, and those who did often directed their questions to other witnesses while Republican after Republican lined up to take shots at Gruber. He made an easy target, the know-it-all liberal egghead who demeaned the wisdom of the American people. Even his nametag played up his dweeby nature, labeling him “Mr. Gruber, PhD.” And by evading questions about how much money he had made from various state and federal contracts, including one with the State of Vermont, to consult on the implementation of the ACA, the bull’s eye just got bigger.

The result was a series of YouTube ready moments where various congressmen accused Gruber of “deception” and beat up him for his comments. Gruber, meanwhile, just sat there and apologized again and again for “inexcusable arrogance” and for trying to sound smart in front of others.

“You’re a professor at MIT, and you’re worried about not looking smart enough?” asked GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy in what was perhaps the most humiliating moment for Gruber. “Yes,” the economist replied.

The hearing, though, wasn’t just about the GOP scoring political points and kicking Gruber while he was down. Looming in the background is the pending Supreme Court case of King v. Burwell, which seeks to overturn much of the Affordable Care Act. It is based on a single passage in the 2700-page law, which opponents say limits federal subsidies and tax to residents of those states that have set up their own exchanges. To date, only 14 states have set up their own exchanges. This means that, should opponents of the law triumph at the Supreme Court, the Affordable Care Act would collapse in the other 36 remaining states.

In particular, conservatives have highlighted off-hand remarks made by Gruber in 2012 that a state exchange was necessary for state residents to get tax credits under Obamacare. While Gruber has repeatedly backed away from these comments and did so again under questioning today, they have become a key part of the conservative argument for the Supreme Court to overturn Obamacare.

Although Gruber insisted in his testimony Tuesday that every economic model he ran in helping to prepare the law assumed tax subsidies would be available in all states, Republicans didn’t hesitate to push on the subject and try to further develop a documentary record that might allow the Supreme Court to dismantle Obamacare.

At the end of the hearing Gruber walked out silently, surrounded by cameras and accompanied by his lawyer. As reporters asked question after question, he walked on without saying a word. The response made sense: when Brutus fell on his own sword, he didn’t have anything more to say either.