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Congress's Obamacare Witch Hunt Will Have a Chilling Effect on Academics

Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

MIT economist and Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber took a beating Tuesday when he testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about his comments on the legislative history of the Affordable Care Act. “Are you stupid?” committee chair Darrell Issa said to start the hearing. Two hours later, Representative Trey Gowdy, after reading Gruber’s past quotes about how Obamacare was written, asked, “Do you see a trend developing here?” Gruber said he didn’t understand the question. “It’s a lot of stupid quotes you’ve made,” Gowdy shot back. “That’s the trend.”

Gowdy’s partially right. Some of Gruber’s comments are plain wrong. But others, while inarticulate, are only stupid because they have become a political liability for Obamacare. The remarks themselves provide a useful, accurate look into how legislation is actually crafted—and why politics leads to suboptimal policies. By forcing Gruber to testify and prodding him to make more comments that could undermine the law, Gowdy and his Republican colleagues are telling academics that they are now part of the political process and must act accordingly. That’s a dangerous message.

In November, the Daily Caller unearthed comments Gruber made at a 2013 comments on the legislative history of Obamacare that seemed to substantiate the Republican belief that Democrats lied to the American people to pass the law. “This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure [the Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes,” he said. “If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies, ok? … [L]ack of transparency is a huge political advantage and basically, you know, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically, that was really, really critical to getting this thing to pass.” In the ensuing days, conservative reporters dug up more comments of Gruber insulting the intellect of the American public.

There are three important points to make about those comments:

1. They are very inarticulate. The use of political gimmicks to obscure parts of the law does not prove voters are stupid. The average American rightfully does not follow the daily legislative process of lawmaking. If anything, Gruber’s comments are an indictment of the media which allows politicians on both sides of the aisle to get away with political tricks.

2. The law was passed in a pretty transparent manner. Gruber is flat out wrong when he implies that the law was not passed in a transparent way. Even media coverage of the law, while far from perfect, was pretty darn good, at least compared to coverage of other major pieces of legislation. A month ago, Jonathan Cohn further explained why conservatives are wrong that Obama misrepresented the law.

3. The bill was crafted to minimize its political repercussions. Gruber is right on this point. The mandate was carefully written so that it would not be called a tax, even though the Congressional Budget Office scored it as a revenue generator. The Supreme Court eventually blew that argument apart. The White House imposed a tax on insurance companies—the Cadillac tax—when they sell high-priced insurance plans instead of taxing the plans directly. Consumers pay the tax in either case but the former is more politically palatable. Democratic and Republican policymakers craft legislation to reduce the political blowback all the time. Gruber is simply stating, in unacceptable terms, what everyone in Washington knows to be true.

The Republicans’ goal in Tuesday’s hearing was to prod Gruber for further evidence to undermine the law. But Gruber was not going to provide it. As congressman after congressman asked him what he meant by his comments, he threw himself under the bus. He apologized ad nauseam, said he was trying to prove his intellect by insulting the American people and called his comments “inexcusable.” He refused to call himself an architect of the law—although he undoubtedly was—and downplayed his involvement by referring to himself as an economic adviser.

The combative hearing earned many Republican lawmakers good sound bites and conservative websites published videos of Gruber repeatedly avoiding questions such as how much he earned from federal and state contracts. But it left many of them frustrated. Gruber accomplished his goal: Nothing he said added to our understanding of how the law was passed.

A much larger worry is that Gruber’s experience will signal to him and other academics involved in lawmaking that they are now political pawns in a much larger game. Even at an academic conference years after legislation became law, Gruber’s comments still threatened to undermine Obamacare. It’s hard to imagine that he will speak off the cuff ever again. That’s a major loss, as his willingness to speak candidly about the policymaking process has undoubtedly help countless people understand why legislation is crafted in such suboptimal ways—why the Cadillac tax was used or the mandate was not called a tax.

Later on in the hearing Tuesday, Republicans showed their frustration with Gruber’s vague answers and refusal to answer straightforward questions. “It does appear that you have progressed in your ability to be political,” Representative Tim Walberg said. “You answer questions better than any politician sitting at this desk today. … You have progressed from not simply talking off the cuff and making stupid statements to now being entirely political.” The blame for that, though, does not fall on Gruber. It falls on House Republicans who have given him no other option.