Home / General / The Unbearable Stupidity of #GruberGate

The Unbearable Stupidity of #GruberGate


As we’ve previously discussed, conservatives have taken time from their busy schedule of constructing asinine legal theories to strip health insurance from millions of people to spend time parsing the obscure comments of President, Speaker of the House, Senate Majority Leader, Secretary of State, Chief Justice of the United States, and longtime don of the Gambino crime family Jonathan Gruber.

I could probably just note that Ron Fournier has boarded this train of derp and drop the mic, but couple of additional points. First of all, Timothy Jost’s comments on the first round of Gruber silliness remain relevant:

The greatest mystery of the media coverage of this litigation is why anyone should care what Jon Gruber might have said two years after the ACA was adopted while completely ignoring what the members of Congress who wrote the legislation have said they meant. Jon Gruber did not write the bill; he did not vote on it. He recognized before his 2012 misstatements that federal exchanges could in fact grant premium tax credits. But, for goodness sake, why should responsible journalists care? Gruber’s misstatements certainly have no more legal relevance than those of any other private citizen.

Gruber’s role in the passage of the ACA has been vastly exaggerated. He was a consultant, providing some expertise to help Congress and the White House do what they wanted to do. And — I stress that I’m not saying this to be critical of Gruber — it’s not as if his core ideas were some unique insight. As ridiculous as the comparison to the Heritage proposal and the ACA is, the mandate is the one thing they have in common. With European style health care reform off the table, and an employer-mandate model poisoned by the Clinton debacle, the ACA was going to take the same fundamental form had Jonathan Gruber never been born. And the specific details of the ACA had much more to do with the idiosyncrasies of marginal Senate votes like Nelson and Lieberman than Gruber.

But, more to the point, Gruber was paid for his (genuine) expertise on health care economics, not his expertise on politics. On the latter, he’s just a guy; his comments carry weight only to the extent that they’re true or relevant, and nothing he says is both. Brian Beutler:

First, Gruber’s actually overstating the degree to which the ACA needed to be finessed in order to pass. It’s true that the bill’s authors took steps to maximize its public appeal and minimize its vulnerabilities. Everyone writing significant legislation does this. The question is always how far you go—what lines are you willing to cross?

Congress did, as Gruber says, construct the mandate as a penalty rather than a tax, to make the bill passable. (Since then the Supreme Court has done us all a favor by reminding us this is a distinction without a difference.) Likewise, the bill’s core benefits only began kicking in this year, in large part because the authors wanted to keep the 10 year cost of the bill under $1 trillion to prevent sticker shock. Gruber didn’t mention that part.

But his suggestion that the key cost-sharing tradeoffs weren’t widely discussed just isn’t true. The idea that healthy people as well as sick people needed to participate in the system was central to the moral argument for the mandate, and figured heavily in the substantive debate over how much more insurers should be able to charge the elderly than the young. The risk-rating tussle is illustrative, because it was the rule, rather than the exception to the long legislative tug-of-war over the broader ACA. Conservatives have always said the health care law wasn’t debated, that it was rammed through, nobody read it, etc, etc. But it actually stands out for how much it was debated, and, for the most part, how transparent that debate was. Which in turn explains how difficult it was to pass.

In contrast, nearly everyone who’s attacking Gruber as if he were a White House political employee or a Democratic senator is simultaneously trying to require the Congressional Budget Office to say that tax cuts pay for themselves. The people who brought you the phony arithmetic of the Bush tax cuts and Medicare Part D and the self-financing Iraq war are upset about the ACA, which is genuinely fiscally sound.

By any reasonable standard, ACA respected budgetary constraints much better than most other laws.

This is all correct. I will add one additional point: Gruber’s comments are self-refuting. It is true that most voters don’t pay a great deal of attention to the details of politics, although it is both wrong and offensive to characterize this as “stupidity.” (One of the many things the debate over the ACA showed us is that even extremely intelligent, accomplished, and well-educated people can have a very shaky grasp of basic facts about the political process.) But given widespread voter ignorance, the idea that minor differences in the rhetoric were crucial to the passage of the ACA is self-evidently false. Even if you assume the false premise that shifts in public opinion translate directly into votes by members of Congress, the majority of the public who can’t name which party controls both house of Congress or name a single Supreme Court justice is not going to change its mind about the ACA based on whether the mandate is described in some speeches as a “penalty” or a “tax,” or because a wonk somewhere explains that insurance means that the healthy pay for the sick.

There’s just nothing here. Gruber doesn’t speak for anybody, and to the extent that his assumptions have any possible relevance they aren’t accurate.

UPDATE: Welcome Patterico readers! To help out your host, who apparently saw “Gruber” and decided to comment without reading the post, allow me to highlight this passage from the OP:

Gruber’s role in the passage of the ACA has been vastly exaggerated. He was a consultant, providing some expertise to help Congress and the White House do what they wanted to do.

He was a consultant who discussed “principles” with the White House and ran some models for Congress. He didn’t draft the legislation, he didn’t draft amendments, he didn’t vote for the legislation, he didn’t implement the legislation, he doesn’t speak for the Democratic Party in any way. See? You’re welcome!

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