In the space of a week, Jonathan Gruber has become a non-person in Washington. Until last Monday, the MIT health economist was widely and uncontroversially cited as an "architect" of the Affordable Care Act, a go-to expert regarding the law's politics and mechanics. But after multiple videos surfaced in which Gruber said or implied that the bill's backers relied on deception and an assumption of voter stupidity in order to pass it, Obamacare's backers moved swiftly to distance themselves from Gruber and downplay his role in the creation of the law.
Asked about Gruber's videotaped declaration that "lack of transparency" provided "a huge political advantage," Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi responded dismissively. "I don't know who he is," she said. "He didn't help write our bill." A Wall Street Journal item by Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal Center for American Progress and a former administration staffer, opened by insisting that Gruber "did not make policy, nor did he work for the White House, HHS, or any congressional committee." Jay Angoff, the former overseer of the health law's implementation at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), told Politico that Gruber was neither a legislator nor a staffer. "He's like 300 million other Americans who can have their opinion."
Even the president himself weighed in. Responding over the weekend to questions about Gruber's statements, President Obama pushed back on Gruber's role, labeling him "some adviser who was never on our staff." Gruber's remarks, Obama said, were "not a reflection on the actual process that was run" when crafting and passing Obamacare.
These reactions from Obama and others were, for the most part, technically true—but nonetheless misleading about Gruber's influence on the law. At a minimum, they were not fully transparent about his role. In attempting to downplay Gruber's remarks, Obamacare's supporters had instead proved him right.
Nancy Pelosi, for example, knew Gruber's name when she cited his work by 2009 in support of the law. And while Tanden is technically right that Gruber did not work for the White House, the Department of Health and Human Services, or any congressional committee as a staffer, he did, as she notes, work as a contractor, receiving almost $400,000 for a technical analysis of the law.
As for whether Gruber helped write the law, he has claimed explicitly that he did. In a 2012 lecture on the structure of the law, Gruber says that the small business tax credits are a portion of the bill that he "actually wrote."
In a video marking the anniversary of the Massachusetts health care law, which Gruber helped design, Gruber says he "helped President Obama develop a national version" of the same law. The video was produced and distributed by President Obama's campaign organization.
Reporting backs up Gruber's claim. A 2012 article on Gruber in The New York Times reported that he "helped the administration put together the basic principles of the proposal, the White House lent him to Capitol Hill to help Congressional staff members draft the specifics of the legislation."
Yes, Gruber was an adviser, as Obama describes him, but that significantly understates his role. In addition to the nearly $400,000 he received from the administration (more than Obama's senior staff earns annually), his work was cited repeatedly by the administration as evidence for the law, and Gruber participated in high-level discussions with the president himself about what policies the law should include.
When the bill was being scored by the Congressional Budget Office, Gruber was one of just three outside economists summoned to an Oval Office meeting with the president and CBO director Douglas Elmendorf to look for ways to adjust the law in order to receive a better score, according to The Washington Post. That discussion, Gruber later said in a 2012 PBS documentary on the creation of the law, "became the genesis of what is called the Cadillac tax in the health care bill." Gruber also visited with senior administration officials at the White House on several other ocassions, according to visitor logs.
The White House relied on Gruber not only to help determine policy, but to make the case for why it would work. In November of 2009, as Obamacare was being debated, the White House touted a report produced by Gruber as an "objective" analysis of the law—failing to mention that he had been paid by the administration.
And then there was the time in 2006 when, as a senator, Obama said he'd "stolen ideas" from Jonathan Gruber—in Obama's words, "liberally."
The media has abetted the law's allies in their quest to downplay Gruber's role, as if there was uncertainty about the extent of his influence. An article in Politico on the Gruber flap asks in its headline "Was Jonathan Gruber the 'architect'?" Four months ago, however, there was no question about his role. The same reporter described Gruber as "one of Obamacare's chief architects" in the opening line of a piece.
Gruber was not just "some adviser" who ran computer simulations but played no role in setting policy. He was not just like 300 million other Americans, some guy with an opinion.
He was intimately connected to the law and its creation, an influence on Obama before his presidency, paid handsomely to analyze Obamacare's effects, invited to at least one presidential meeting at the White House to help determine its structure, and directly involved in the writing of the law's legislative text on Capitol Hill.
It's clear from their dismissive remarks that the administration and its supporters want to avoid too much discussion of this. They don't want to be associated with the man or his ideas. But Gruber'a ideas, and his deceptions, are part of the foundation of Obamacare. They just don't want to admit it.
Indeed, by trying to escape his remarks, Obamacare's defenders are amplifying Gruber's essential point, which wasn't that Obamacare supporters made up spectacular fabrications but instead that they heavily shaded the truth, presenting it and editing it in a way intended to create a false but politically convenient impression: The deception that he described regarding the crafting and selling of Obamacare is again on full display as supporters of the health law desperately attempt to diminish and downplay the role of one of its key architects, despite the plain evidence to the contrary.
As an episode in the ongoing saga of Obamacare, it's both revealing and confirming: The White House and its allies are misleading the public about Gruber just as they have about the law. They don't want the public to know the full truth about either.