The Three-Pronged, Four-Hour Grilling of Jonathan Gruber

The "Obamacare architect" takes a dive down the Hill.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Economics professor Jonathan Gruber testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about his work on the Affordable Care Act in the Rayburn House Office building on Capitol Hill December 9, 2014 in Washington, DC

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Before a citizen journalist named Rich Weinstein started looking into the public life of Jonathan Gruber, the MIT professor was best known to health care wonks. He knew his stuff. He was quotable. These were not widely shared characteristics during the epic debate over the Affordable Care Act.

After Weinstein started clipping videos from Gruber's many talks, the whole world got to know a different MIT professor. This Gruber–first and most importantly–seemed to be endorsing the Republican theory that the ACA was written to deny insurance subsidies to people in states that didn't set up their own exchanges. This Gruber chortled about how "the stupidity of the American voter" allowed the ACA to pass. This Gruber was some sort of accidental Bond villain, revealing the worst about the way Obamacare became law, and the way the elites think of the country.

The Jonathan Gruber that showed up to be grilled by the House Oversight and Government Reform chamber was unrecognizable from any previous model. As cameramen snapped photos of him at his witness table, he fiddled with his watch. This was a chastened, cautious man with a modest-to-poor recall of numbers, whom no wonky reporter would think of quoting. It was if the man had been locked in a lightless cellar for a month, and had been dragged out, blinking, for his captors, as was clear from Gruber's pathetic opening statement.

"I did not draft Governor Romney’s health care plan, and I was not the 'architect' of President Obama’s health care plan," said Gruber, looking up at both committee chairman Darrell Issa and the new official portrait of Issa. "In some cases I made uninformed and glib comments about the political process behind health care reform. I am not an expert on politics and my tone implied that I was, which is wrong."

This set the tone of the whole four hour hearing. Gruber admitted being "glib" and overselling himself as a political expert. He took a dive, basically. He sat glumly and nodded as the committee's Democratic ranking member, Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings, called his infamous comments "stupid." (Wire writers made this and the apology the first ledes from the hearing.) When Democrats gave him soft, friendly-fire questions, Gruber said nothing insightful. When incoming Oversight chairman Representative Jason Chaffetz attempted to get Gruber to describe meetings with the people who drafted the ACA, he was met with a gush of stammers.

"When did you stop working for the (Congressional Budget Office)?" asked Chaffetz.

"I did not..." started Gruber. "I was on the advisory council until 2008? I'm not entirely sure."

"You mean 2011, is that correct?" said Chaffetz.

"I don't recall exactly," said Gruber.

Chaffetz moved on, asking Gruber how many times he'd been to the White House.

"Was it more than 20?" asked Chaffetz.

"Uh, no, it was not," said Gruber.

"I believe it was more than 20," said Chaffetz. "How many times do you think it was?"

"I made a number of visits to the White House, primarily to the executive office building, to meet with President Obama's staff," said Gruber.

The man who mumbled that was unrecognizable from the wonk-conquerer who starred in a  2012 campaign video about the origins of the ACA. That seemed to be the point. Gruber repeatedly deferred to "legal counsel" when asked questions that had hard numbers at their centers, and he repeatedly said he could not "recall" key moments. The Republican attempts to goad him came from three angles:

The lawsuit angle

Gruber did not truly become infamous on the right until courts started taking up conservative lawsuits against the ACA, challenging the legality of subsidies to people whose states did not build exchanges. (Some garbled language in the ACA both creates a federal exchange and refers to subsidies going to an "exchange established by the state.") After the lawsuits were filed, Weinstein and others found examples of Gruber saying that "there are billions of dollars at stake here in setting up these exchanges." Ohio Representative Jim Jordan and Michigan Representative Justin Amash generally focused their questions on that.

"What did you mean when you repeatedly said that the citizens of some states may not quality for Obamacare tax credits?" asked Amash.

"When I made those comments, I believe I was reflecting uncertainty about the federal exchange," said Gruber. "I don't recall exactly what the law says."

"I'm sorry," said Amash. "You ran the economic model on Obamacare and you don't recall what the law says?"

"Every model I ran assumed that the tax credits would be available," said Gruber.

Issa dug in, asking Gruber that if he was aware that "the language [of the law] explicitly" nullified his model. This was generally understood by Democrats to be gaslighting, attempting to convince them that the law had always included a self-destruct button. In his turn at bat, Jordan asked Gruber's fellow witness Marilyn Tavenner, administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, if she was warning consumers that a lawsuit might kill their subsidies.

"If the ruling says what Mr. Gruber says in those videos, have you been explaining to people signing up for Obamacare that look, this may all cost a lot more in a couple of months?" he asked.

Tavenner said she wasn't.

The you-got-rich-off-taxpayers angle

Ohio Representative Mike Turner pummeled Gruber for taking $400,000 of "taxpayer money" in Obamacare consulting fees, then pretending he was a mere analyst. Most of his colleagues went further, fruitlessly, and asked Gruber to verify stories that added up his work for states and judged that he'd made millions.

"Was it $2.5 million or $2.8 million or more?" rumbled defeated Michigan Representative Kerry Bentivolio. "You're an economist, you know how to balance a checkbook!"

Similar questions came from Florida Representative John Mica, who bemoaned "consultants who took advantage and enriched themselves." Kentucky Representative Tom Massie read back old Gruber quotes on the economic affects of abortion, begging the question of what other evils Gruber could justify when the voters weren't looking. "They pay your salary, and you patronized them," said Massie.

The repeated questions made Gruber look slippery. Yet they weren't particularly pertinent; Gruber was under no obligation to detail money he took from sources beyond the federal government. And Republicans weren't particularly well equipped to fact-check him. They were satisfied with making him look grubby.

The you-told-the-truth angle 

Republicans weren't particularly interested in calling Gruber a liar. They wanted to make him–if he wasn't already–the patron saint of snobbish academic trickery. They coaxed more apologies (for "glibness") before explaining that Gruber only said the truth when he thought his audience was limited to like-minded liberals. At one point, Issa asked if any audience members contradicted Gruber on the "stupidity of voters." Gruber said that they did not.

"I guess what you were saying was popular in that community," said Issa.

South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy spent his entire six minutes with Gruber litigating the "stupidity" remarks. "Are you offering the venue as a defense for saying it, or meaning it?" he asked. "What I'm struggling with is whether you apologized because you said it or because you meant it."

 There were few bright moments for the witness. When pressed enough, he'd rebut the idea that the ACA was passed through chicanery. "I think the Affordable Care Act was passed in a highly transparent fashion, with thousands of hours of debate," he told Bentivolio. But the progressives who hoped he'd use his time in the hot seat to lucidly explain the ACA left disappointed. And Gruber left as reporters fired off questions that he could finally ignore.