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Grubergate is really Obamacaregate

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What Grubergate is really about.
What Grubergate is really about.
Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

The irony of Grubergate Part 2 (The Grubergatening) is that Jon Gruber, an MIT health economist under fire for saying the law passed in part because its unpopular elements were obscured, did as much as anyone in the country to clarify what was really in Obamacare.

Gruber's econometric model was a key resource for figuring out what changes to the law would really mean. He spent thousands of hours on the phone with all kinds of journalists answering the most arcane, technical questions they could summon. He was among the best at being clear on what the law would actually do, and who would win and who would lose from it, even when politicians didn't want to admit it. And after the law passed he was so concerned about whether people would understand it that he literally wrote a comic book explaining how it worked.

Without Gruber, the American people would have known a lot less about what was in Obamacare. But the problem here isn't what Gruber did. It's what he said.

It is testament to how much shit Gruber has landed himself in recently that his controversial comments actually need to be sorted into two parts. There's part 1, in which Gruber made comments that seem to support the most dangerous lawsuit currently being brought against Obamacare. And there's part 2, in which Gruber made comments that seem to support the worst suspicions every Republican had about the way Obamacare was written, and who it was written by.

I'll lay my cards on the table here. I think Gruber is getting an unfair rap. But I don't want to downplay what he said — or how much it matters. I know Gruber for more than a handful of dumb comments caught on tape. I've spent hours on the phone with him going through the law, and so I have a bit of context for how fast he speaks, for how he thinks, for how he might have made these comments.

But if I hated Obamacare — if I thought it was an unconstitutional law that was jammed through Congress on false pretenses — I'd think Gruber's comments were a huge deal. They confirm everything I already believed about Obamacare: it's an unconstitutional law jammed through Congress on false pretenses by elitist technocrats who dismiss the intelligence of the American people.

In that way, Grubergate is really Obamacaregate. What you think about it isn't based on what Jon Gruber said. It's based on what you think about Obamacare.

Grubergate, Part 1

Gruber's initial comments, which emerged a few months back, appear to support the King v. Burwell case, which argues that subsidies can't flow through the federal exchanges that are being used in 36 states. These comments from Gruber are both truly bizarre, and, because they could give justices some justification for ruling for the plaintiffs, genuinely dangerous to the law.

On these comments, I'll pretty much repeat what I said when they first emerged. They contradict literally everything else we know — including from Gruber.

They contradict the testimony from the Democratic and Republican congressional aides who wrote the bill. They contradict what the Congressional Budget Office (which Gruber advised) was told by Congress. They contradict the recollections of the very best reporters who covered Obamacare — notably Sarah Kliff and Julie Rovner. They contradict the debate in every state that chose to use a federal exchange. They contradict the way the Obama administration understood (and implemented) the law. They contradict the way the Supreme Court interpreted the law in 2012.

Hell, they contradict everything else Gruber has ever said or written about the law. Gruber's Obamacare comic book assumed federally run exchanges get subsidies. His most tangible contribution to the Obamacare debate — technical simulations used by HHS that modeled how many people would get insurance under different scenarios — always assumed subsidies ran through federal exchanges. No journalist who interviewed Gruber (myself included) ever heard him mention that states that don't set up exchanges don't receive subsidies. He himself says he never believed that.

So why did Gruber say otherwise in these two videos? I honestly have no idea. But this is like uncovering tape of Michael Bay saying there's nothing he hates seeing more in a movie than an explosion. It requires us to throw out pretty much everything Gruber has done publicly and instead believe that he thought dozens of states would be implementing Obamacare without subsidies — a nightmare of a policy outcome that would have given him a nervous breakdown — but the only times he ever mentioned it were at two Q&A sessions in 2012.

That said, the comments still exist. And they still seem to clearly support the argument of King v. Burwell. I think context shreds these comments to nearly nothing. But first you have to want to bring that context to bear.

Grubergate, Part 2 (Return of the Gruber)

In the second group of comments, which emerged over the last few days, Gruber basically laments the tricks and gimmicks of the legislative process, and says that these things work because the American voter is stupid.

To understand these statements, it's best to start with the full quote, including the stops and starts, as Jonathan Chait did:

This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. So it's written to do that.

In terms of risk-rated subsidies, in a law that said health people are gonna pay in - if it made explicit that healthy people are gonna pay in, sick people get money, it would not have passed. Okay - just like the ... people - transperen- 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.

Again, I should lay my biases on the table: I think these comments are garbled and and the diss against voters is dumb, but Gruber's basic point here is also undeniably true.

"Here's the dirty little secret," wrote Neil Irwin at the New York Times. "Mr. Gruber was exposing something sordid yet completely commonplace about how Congress makes policy of all types: Legislators frequently game policy to fit the sometimes arbitrary conventions by which the Congressional Budget Office evaluates laws and the public debates them."

Everyone — literally, everyone — who makes or covers policy in Washington is familiar with Gruber's complaint: Congress constantly tries to appease both the Congressional Budget Office and voters by designing policy in unnecessarily complex ways, and selling it in ways that obscure the tradeoffs. Both parties do this every single day, all of the time. And if they lose the fight — if people focus on the way tax cuts explode the deficit rather than put money in their pockets, or if they focus on who health reform taxes rather than who it helps — they lose the policy.

I talked to Gruber a lot during this period, and I know exactly what he's trying to say here: he was really, really frustrated by Washington's games. He was really annoyed at politicians framing things and writing legislative language to support their press releases rather than the final law. As involved as he's been in the policymaking process, Gruber is, first and foremost, an MIT economist. And he's got little patience for Washington's tendency to take clean, straightforward policies and complicate them in the name of politics.

For example, Gruber was rightly pissed off when Democrats moved from the clean, simple solution of capping the deduction permitted for employer-based health care to the more complex, but functionally similar, excise-tax on high-cost health plans. That was a purely political move that was meant to slightly obscure what the law was really doing. Obama had run against Sen. John McCain's plan to cap the employer deduction, and he couldn't propose the exact same policy. And Democrats preferred the optics of taxing insurers rather than taxing employers, even though, in the end, workers would pay in either scenario. It was a perfectly transparent political ploy that slightly degraded the underlying policy. And Gruber didn't like it.

But Gruber did something stupid here: he tried to look knowing and clever to his audience by dismissing the intelligence of voters. His actual point there is ridiculous. The idea that most voters were paying close attention to subtle framing decisions around risk pooling or excise taxes or even mandates is absurd. Voters aren't dumb. They just don't follow politics closely. When Washington tries to trick people, it's almost always trying to trick itself.

Still, Gruber's comments fit pretty much every stereotype conservatives have about the liberal policymakers behind Obamacare: that they're out-of-touch technocrats who look down on voters and passed the law by lying about it.

Beyond Grubergate

There's no particular conclusion I can offer on Grubergate that will persuade the law's opponents that it's a good law. Hell, there's no conclusion I could offer on it that could persuade the law's supporters that it's a bad one. Grubergate is really just another iteration of Obamacaregate. The real argument is about the law itself, not Jon Gruber.

So I'll offer a slightly smaller final thought here: Gruber increasingly looks like a casualty of Obamacare. He's become a liability to the law's supporters — "I don't know who he is," said Nancy Pelosi, who had cited Gruber's analyses during the health-care debate — and a villain to its opponents. He has been made into the worst comments he ever uttered on tape.

That's a shame. Gruber tried to make it a better bill than it is. He tried to make what was in it clearer and more known than it was. And then — and this is where all the tapes come from — he traveled the country trying to explain it to people. And Gruber, as is perfectly clear now, was not an experienced political operator who knew how to talk carefully in front of a camera. The lesson other academics will take from his humiliation is that they best stay out of big policy debates, and they had really better make sure they never say anything interesting on tape.

Washington has always done this to people, but it's happening more frequently, and more viciously, in the age of Twitter and YouTube. And while it makes sense in every individual case, it is, on the whole, bad for American politics. "It's a healthy world where academics can speak their minds at conferences and the like without their words becoming political weapons in a bigger fight," writes Tyler Cowen.

Cowen goes on to suggest that "perhaps we should subsidize people who end up looking foolish, rather than taxing them." We're not going to do that, of course. But we can at least try to be a bit more generous. We can remember people are more than the most controversial thing we've ever heard them say.

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