Advocate's Comments On ACA Now A Liability For Law's Supporters

Dec 9, 2014
Originally published on December 9, 2014 6:47 pm
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An apology today from an MIT economist who advised Democrats as they were crafting the Affordable Care Act - Jonathan Gruber apologized for saying supporters of the ACA had to conceal what was in the law in order to pass it. Those past comments became an Internet sensation in recent weeks, fueling Republican charges that Americans were duped into the health care law. Gruber tried to explain himself at a hearing before the House oversight committee today, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Jonathan Gruber's economic models played an important role in shaping both the Affordable Care Act and the Massachusetts's law it was based on. Gruber's political analysis, though, has become a liability for the law's supporters. At a House hearing today, Gruber said he's embarrassed by his comments belittling American voters, calling those comments glib, thoughtless and insulting.

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JONATHAN GRUBER: I would say that I made a series of inexcusable and offensive comments and I apologize for that, but that my flaws as a private citizen - not a politician - should not reflect on either the process by which the ACA was passed or the success of that law itself.

HORSLEY: That apology stems from a series of comments in which Gruber said the health care law was written in a tortured way to conceal key elements from both budget scorekeepers on Capitol Hill and the American public. The comments were captured in a series of now infamous videotapes like this one.

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GRUBER: Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. Call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever. But basically, that was really, really critical to get anything to pass.

HORSLEY: Today, Gruber tried to minimize those comments as amateur political commentary from an economist out of his depth. He was just trying to look smart, Gruber said. Republican lawmakers, like Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, weren't buying it.

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CONGRESSMAN TREY GOWDY: You're professor at MIT and you're worried about not looking smart enough.

GRUBER: Yes.

GOWDY: Well, you succeeded.

HORSLEY: Committee Democrats were just as tough. Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, called Gruber's comments irresponsible and stupid.

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CONGRESSMAN ELIJAH CUMMINGS: We debated this legislation for nearly a year. Never once did I believe or did anyone suggest that we were somehow hiding our goals from the American people.

HORSLEY: Cummings complained that Gruber's comments are a distraction from the good things the health care law is doing and a political gift to the GOP. Republicans have seized on Gruber's words as evidence that Obamacare supporters weren't straight with the American people. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa wasn't about to let Gruber disavow those words today.

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CONGRESSMAN DARRELL ISSA: I think most of us believe you believed a lot of what you said.

HORSLEY: Democrats have tried to distance themselves from Gruber. The head of Medicare and Medicaid didn't even want to sit next to him at the hearing today. Marilyn Tavenner was called before the committee to issue her own mea culpa. Her agency overstated the number of people signing up for Obamacare coverage, counting some 400,000, who only purchased dental plans.

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MARILYN TAVENNER: This was an inadvertent mistake for which I apologize.

HORSLEY: The four-hour hearing was often contentious. Gruber, who was paid nearly $400,000 by the federal government for his modeling work, was repeatedly asked by Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, and others, how much he'd been paid by the states. He didn't answer.

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GRUBER: I was informed that I should report all federal monies received through grants or contracts for this fiscal year and the previous two fiscal years.

CONGRESSMAN JIM JORDAN: I don't care what you were informed, Mr. Gruber. I care about what I'm asking you. And what I'm asking you is how much money did the taxpayers - state or federal - pay you to have you then lie to them? That's what I want to know.

HORSLEY: Gruber's caginess about finances and other matters prompted one member of the panel to conclude the economist is more political than he lets on. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.