MIT professor Jonathan Gruber faced the music Tuesday. He appeared before the House Oversight Committee to answer questions about his comments on the “stupidity of the American voter” and the “lack of transparency” during the drafting of the Affordable Care Act. Coming more than a month after video of his remarks were revealed, today was the public climax of what has become Gruber-gate.
Whether it was an edifying exercise — or a chance for House Republicans to score points — is debatable. But nevertheless, these were the most important moments from the four-plus hours of Gruber’s testimony.
Are You Stupid, Dr. Gruber?
House Oversight Chair Darrell Issa (R-CA) set the tone with his first question to Gruber in the hearing: “Are you stupid?”
It was, perhaps intentionally, tinged with the same kind of condescension that characterized Gruber’s controversial comments. That was the general tenor of the GOP’s interrogation of their star witness: Less righteous anger — though that was not entirely absent — and more bemusement that this whip-smart academic, who confessed and apologized for a lack of political acumen, had stumbled into a national firestorm.
In the best such cross-examination of the hearing, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) walked Gruber through his past statements and then forecfully implied that he was not being entirely genuine in his retractions.
“Do you see a pattern trend here, professor?” Gowdy said. “It’s a lot of stupid quotes you made.”
“What is a non-politician doing talking about political advantages?” Gowdy continued, picking up on Gruber’s most frequent explanation for the comments.
“A non-politician is talking about political advantages to try to make himself seem smarter,” Gruber said.
“So you’re a professor at MIT and you’re worried about not looking smarter enough?” Gowdy said.
“Yes,” Gruber said, a little reluctantly.
“Well, you succeeded,” Gowdy said.
What Were You Paid, Dr. Gruber?
The most tense confrontations during the hearing centered on the money that Gruber has received from the federal government and the states for consulting work on Obamacare’s creation and implementation.
“We want to know how much you got from the taxpayer and then made fun of them and lied to them,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), summarizing the Republicans’ angle in pursuing the question. Gruber received at least $400,000 from the feds for his economic simulations during the law’s drafting. He has also been hired by several states for similar work.
Issa stopped the hearing more than once, informing Gruber that he viewed the income disclosures he made before the hearing as “deficient.” But Gruber never budged in declining to give a specific-dollar figure, despite repeated barbs from multiple members.
“The committee can take that up with my counsel,” he said at one point.
Is Obamacare A Tax, Dr. Gruber?
The most aired Gruber video involved him discussing the individual mandate and the “tortured way” that the law had been written to avoid it being considered a tax for Congressional Budget Office scoring purposes. Rep Michael Turner (R-OH) focused his questioning of Gruber on that snippet.
“Do you deny calling Obamacare a tax?” Turned asked.
“If you’re reading my actual quotes,” Gruber said.
“I’m reading your actual quotes,” Turner said.
“Then I don’t deny it,” Gruber conceded.
“Do you know what a tax is?” Turner continued. “Yes,” Gruber said.
“So you don’t deny today that Obamacare is a tax,” Turner said.
“Obamacare is a large piece of legislation with many provisions,” Gruber began. “Is one of those a tax?” Turner interjected. Gruber eventually said he disagreed with the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that the individual mandate is a tax.
Toward the end of his time, Turner pressed Gruber on whether the administration had ever asked him to consider or otherwise referenced the mandate as a tax.
“I honestly do not recall,” Gruber said.
Is Obamacare About To Be Gutted, Ms. Tavenner?
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Marilyn Tavenner was largely a bystander during the hearing, but Jordan did shift his questions to her on the subject of the ongoing lawsuit that would invalidate tax credits being offered through the federal health exchange, HealthCare.gov.
Jordan wanted to know if CMS was warning the people signing up through HealthCare.gov since open enrollment started last month that their tax credits could be retracted if the Supreme Court rules against the Obama administration in King v. Burwell.
“Have you been explaining to people signing up that this all may change in a matter of months?” Jordan has asked.
“Nothing has changed for consumers,” Tavenner said.
“Are you telling people things may change?” Jordan continued.
“This is not a closed case,” Tavenner said.
“Do you think it’s responsible to not tell millions of enrollees” that they could lose their tax credits? Jordan said, formulating the question a little differently.
“It’s not a closed case,” Tavenner concluded. “I’m not going to speculate.”
You Were Stupid, Dr. Gruber.
Democratic members of the committee were largely a safe haven for Gruber during the hearing, though Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) took the opportunity to lambast the law’s Cadillac tax, loathed by unions, which was the subject of one of the less publicized Gruber videos.
But the other notable exception was ranking member Rep. Eliha Cummings (D-MD), who used his opening statement to berate Gruber for his comments and the political opportunity they created for his colleagues across the aisle.
“As far as I can tell, we are here today to beat up on Jonathan Gruber for his stupid — and I mean absolutely stupid — comments,” Cummings said. “But worst of all, Dr. Gruber’s statements gave Republicans a public relations gift in their relentless political campaign to tear down the ACA.”