It took nearly four hours, but the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee finally settled the question once and for all about whether Obamacare was a good idea or a bad idea.
Yeah, right. Of course that’s not what happened.
The committee came together for a hearing on Tuesday that was intended to make Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and Obamacare consultant Jonathan Gruber answer for his demeaning comments about American voters and his assertions that President Barack Obama’s administration and Democratic lawmakers designed the Affordable Care Act in a convoluted way to fool the public.
Gruber's comments sparked controversy last month after videos of them surfaced online. "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," he said of the health care overhaul.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the senior Democrat on the committee, summed up the purpose of the hearing this way: “As far as I can tell, we are here today to beat up on Jonathan Gruber for stupid -- I mean absolutely stupid -- comments he made over the past few years.” He was only partly right.
Beyond the nominal focus on an uncharacteristically diffident Gruber, the hearing was also about providing Republicans on the committee a chance to remind everyone how terrible Obamacare is and how much they hate it, helping them make the case that it’s OK for the Supreme Court to gut it.
“The history of design, passage and implementation with the law is fraught with half-truths and deception,” committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said at the top of the hearing, in case anyone watching was unfamiliar with the GOP position on Obamacare.
Meanwhile, Democrats emphasized things like how the law has signed up millions of people into health coverage, including 10 million who had none before. They also noted that Congress debated the Affordable Care Act for more than a year, holding dozens of hearings, as opposed to engaging in a shadowy conspiracy to dupe the public.
This went on for hours -- four more hours in a campaign of more than four years by Republicans to undermine the Affordable Care Act, and the less-effective Democratic efforts to counter it. The net result: The law is still in place, and public opinion on it has barely changed since 2010. One poll this month found that 80 percent of Americans aren't even paying attention to the Gruber situation anyway.
The speeches and questions from GOP panelists amounted to a greatest hits compilation of anti-Obamacare talking points. The list of grievances included: Obama’s broken promise that no one would lose their health plan when the law took effect, the cost of the law, the false “death panel” claim that Obamacare will cut off old people from health care, the early failure of HealthCare.gov and the administration misreporting how many people enrolled.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) even brought up Benghazi for good measure.
The Gruber videos gave the GOP fresh fodder for their anti-Obamacare campaign, and the Harvard-educated professor himself proved an irresistible target -- a personification of conservative distaste for liberals, eggheads and the Democrats who wrote the Affordable Care Act.
“You said what they were all thinking when they wrote Obamacare, that they knew what was best for my constituents,” said Thomas Massie (R-Ky.).
And that’s why Cummings chastised Gruber for bringing the negative attention to Obama’s signature domestic initiative, which already isn’t very popular. “Dr. Gruber’s statements gave Republicans a public relations gift in their relentless political campaign to tear down the ACA,” he said.
Ever-present in the hearing room was the upcoming Supreme Court consideration of a lawsuit that would take away coverage from more than 4 million people. The plaintiffs in that lawsuit contend that the wording of one line in the law means the federal government can’t issue tax credit subsidies to people in states that didn’t create their own health insurance exchanges (which is about two-thirds of them).
Some Republicans, including incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), see this lawsuit as the best chance to crush Obamacare. And when one of the Gruber videos featured him seemingly agreeing with the plaintiffs' argument in 2012, conservatives seized on it as the only piece of available evidence that Obamacare’s framers intended this to be the case, apart from that ambiguous phrase in the law.
At the hearing, Gruber stressed that he always calculated that tax credits would be available in every state, and couldn’t remember why he’d said the opposite. His best explanation in hindsight, he said, is that maybe he thought the federal government wouldn’t finish its exchanges in time, depriving people in those states of subsidies. “It’s a very clear reading of the law that tax credits should be available to citizens in all states, regardless runs the exchange,” he said.
“It’s not clear. That’s where there’s a Supreme Court case,” said Rep. Scott Desjarlais (R-Tenn.), one of several Republicans including Issa whose comments on the subject assumed the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case to be right.
Gruber attempted to draw a distinction between his role as a policy adviser and his lack of role as a political or legislative strategist. Republicans, who have been promoting Gruber as the most important person behind a law nicknamed after another person, didn’t accept that.
“Professor Jonathan Gruber is considered by many as the architect of Obamacare,” Issa said.
“I was not the architect of President Obama’s health care plan,” Gruber said. Obama agrees.
Gruber also apologized over and over for his previous remarks, which didn’t do much to satisfy anyone on the committee.
It didn’t help Gruber’s case that he repeatedly dodged demands from GOP lawmakers that he fully disclose how much money he made from government contracts. “The committee can take that up with my counsel,” he said a bunch of times. Lawmakers really don’t like when you do that, and Issa said he’d subpoena Gruber if he needed to.
Gruber said it again when Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) pressed Gruber to produce documentation of the health care reform work he did for government agencies. “Do you have documents?” Chaffetz asked during an exchange that pretty well demonstrated how little actual information would come out of this hearing.
“Do I own documents?” Gruber replied. “I have all sorts of documents. I have a piece of paper in front of me.”