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Gruber Apologizes Amid Withering House Panel Criticism

Gruber Apologizes Amid Withering House Panel Criticism

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - December 9, 2014

“Stupid” was the word of the day on Capitol Hill Tuesday as members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee grilled Jonathan Gruber -- he of “the stupidity of the American voter” fame.

The MIT economist who advised the White House on the Affordable Care Act apologized for what he called “glib, thoughtless, and sometimes
downright insulting” comments he made in years past about voter ignorance and a lack of transparency that he said helped the Affordable Care Act become law. But the apology didn’t save him from becoming a bipartisan punching bag.

Even Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings said Gruber’s comments were “stupid, I mean absolutely stupid.”

"You gave the Republicans a public relations gift. Man, you did a great job. You wrapped it up with a bow,” the visibly irritated Maryland congressman told Gruber. Cummings said he was insulted, noting, “Dr. Gruber does not speak for me.”

The hearing was the last to be chaired by term-limited California Republican Darrell Issa, whose aggressive style and relentless approach on a range of issues -- from the Fast and Furious scandal to missing IRS emails and abuses -- have earned him both criticism and applause. Tuesday’s hearing was as colorful an ending to his tenure as chairman as one might have expected.

Issa related that he recently attended the Kennedy Center Honors, where he saw honoree Tom Hanks, the actor who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Forrest Gump. Hanks played “the ultimate successful stupid man,” Issa said. Which led to his next question to Gruber: “Are you stupid?”

“No, I don’t think so,” replied the former administration consultant.

“Does MIT employ stupid people?” Issa asked.

“No, not to my knowledge,” Gruber replied.

Issa concluded then that Gruber was a smart man who, as Cummings described, said some really stupid -- though revealing -- things.

The panel also sparred with the hearing’s main witness over his refusal to say publically how much he was paid to advise the White House. “How much did taxpayers pay you to then lie to them?” Ohio Republican Jim Jordan asked repeatedly. Gruber said his attorneys would later submit the answer for the record, but that he did not recall the number.

While Gruber’s “stupidity of the American voter” comment -- made at a health economics conference in 2013 but brought to light more recently -- provided further fuel for Republicans’ assertions that the administration and congressional Democrats misled the public about the ACA and its impact, the testimony comes as Democrats are engaged in post-election soul searching, with some party members wondering aloud whether they should have passed the law in the first place.

Last month, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said it would have been more fruitful to focus on economic policy aimed at a broader constituency during the time when Obamacare was drafted and passed. Over the past four years, many congressional Democrats who voted for the law have been booted from their jobs in midterm elections.

Still, Democrats on the House panel defended the law and the passage of it. But they seemed incensed that Gruber made it difficult for them to do so. From Nancy Pelosi to the White House, Democrats have tried to downplay Gruber’s role and significance.

Gruber, who also advised Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as that state worked on its own health insurance plan, tried to diminish his influence there and in the Obama administration.

“I did not draft Governor Romney’s health care plan, and I was not the ‘architect’ of President Obama’s health care plan,” he testified. “I ran micro-simulation models to help those in the state and federal executive and legislative branches better assess the likely outcomes of various possible policy choices.”

Gruber also made clear he was no expert in politics, acknowledging that his inflammatory comments prove he was, in fact, quite inept at it: “I am not an expert on politics and my tone implied that I was, which is wrong. In other cases I simply made insulting and mean comments that are totally uncalled for in any situation. It is never appropriate to try to make oneself seem more important or smarter by demeaning others. I know better. I knew better. I am embarrassed, and I am sorry.”

Gruber then sought to walk back his previous remarks about the lack of transparency in passing the law. “Let me be very clear: I do not think that the Affordable Care Act was passed in a non-transparent fashion,” he said. Gruber then called the law a “milestone” accomplishment. “I behaved badly, and I will have to live with that, but my own inexcusable arrogance is not a flaw in the Affordable Care Act.”

Gruber wasn’t the only one on the hot seat during the hearing. Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was criticized for previously misreporting to the committee the number of Americans enrolled in health coverage plans under the exchanges. Tavenner attributed the inflated numbers to twice counting 400,000 people who had also enrolled in dental plans. She called the error “regrettable.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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