Gruber’s name came up earlier this year in another skirmish over the law. In yet another talk, he suggested that the Affordable Care Act was written so that states that didn’t set up insurance exchanges would not also get tax credits. “If you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits,” he said. (He since has said that he was speaking off the cuff and didn’t mean to say what he said.) That’s a key argument in the Supreme Court case against the law in which plaintiffs argue that the subsidies that go to states with federal exchanges are illegal. More Gruber remarks are coming out. Jake Tapper reports on CNN of another instance in which Gruber said the authors of the law mislabeled provisions to make them easier to swallow.
One possible defense of Gruber that can be made is that he was merely describing a truth both parties know: that in order to achieve policy objectives, laws have to be written in convoluted ways to avoid political traps, including a politically bad assessment from the Congressional Budget Office. Also, what Gruber describes was a part of the open policy debate surrounding the law. That would return a conversation that is about duplicity back into one about policy differences. The law wasn’t trying to fool the American people, just the Congressional Budget Office. But that’s not much of a case. Given how often the administration has used the Congressional Budget Office as metaphysical guarantors of truth, this argument just lands you back into hoodwink territory. If the Congressional Budget Office is an institution of such solemnity, why would you want to trick its analysts? The better defense is the one the White House is giving, which is that millions of people are now covered by the law and they seem to like it.
As Republicans try to dismantle the Affordable Care Act from their new position of power in Congress, Gruber will become an oft-cited Oracle of Obamacare. But he confirms a broader critique conservatives have of the president, which is that he either cynically thinks people can be fooled or he thinks people aren’t smart enough to know what’s good for them. That means we’re likely to hear Gruber’s name in debates over issues like immigration, in which he has played no role at all.