Jonathan Gruber and the routine ways of Washington

    On Fox News yesterday, the usual gang was fulminating about Obamacare consultant Jonathan Gruber when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, somebody at the table dared state the obvious – that Grubergate (or whatever faux scandal label you prefer) is chump change.

    Thank you, pundit Juan Williams. Yes, he rightly acknowledged, MIT’s Gruber was “arrogant” last year when he said, during an academic forum, that the Obamacare bill was written with sleight of hand to ensure that it would succeed politically and perhaps fool voters. (Gruber’s words: “Call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.”)

    But then Williams added this: “Look, are you kidding me? In Washington, we package, we merchandise just like, you know, Procter & Gamble, and anybody else that’s selling soap. Of course, things are packaged in such a way as to promote (bills). There’s very little (new). In fact, I would say it’s much ado about nothing.”

    Bingo! Conservatives who are busy flogging Gruber as their latest Benghazi would be wise to recognize the old truism that the process of legislating is akin to the process of sausage-making. This isn’t something that Barack Obama invented (despite their purblind insistence that history began on Jan. 20, 2009); the birthing of laws has been messy and deceptive since the dawn of the republic.

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    I’m not excusing the gamesmanship that took place during the Obamacare process (like having some of the insurance costs kick in three years after passage, to ensure that the initial Congressional Budget Office price tag would stay under $1 trillion, the number deemed politically doable). I’m simply saying that this how things have always been done in D.C. Policy details are inevitably tweaked to fit the political exigencies of the moment. Packaging has always been crucial to passage.

    Cynical? Yes. Reality? Absolutely.

    Ezra Klein, the noted policy wonk, said the other day, “Both parties do this every single day all the time.” Gruber has been crass and condescending – nobody would dispute that – but nevertheless, Klein pointed out, “Gruber’s basic point is undeniably true.”

    And if you really want the gold standard of shrewd cynicism, I’ll give you Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, who quipped shortly before his tenure that “you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time…”

    Speaking of fooling the people some of the time, here’s a quick history tutorial for Obamacare haters, to help them understand (as if) that the health care reform bill process was nothing new:

    Iraq. Rest my case. The war was sold to Americans as a quest to quash Saddam’s supposedly imminent use of his supposed mass weapons. The sales job began in September ’02, because, as Bush chief of staff Andrew Card explained, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” That autumn, a cowed and deceived Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq. I doubt it would’ve passed if it had been truthfully titled the Authorization to Preemptively Invade and Occupy Iraq, for the Purpose of Long-Term Nation Building.

    But let’s stick with health care, because Obamacare haters don’t seem to remember what happened in 2003, when Republicans expanded Medicare to include drug prescriptions for seniors. Same kind of gamesmanship.

    To ensure that they got enough conservative House votes for passage, the Bush White House manipulated the price tag, so that the heaviest costs of the program would come in year 11 and beyond. That process is called “backloading.” The Bush team backloaded the costs because the Congressional Budget Office, when it assesses a bill, looks only at the first 10 years. Cute, huh? Anyway, the CBO estimated that the Medicare expansion would cost $395 billion in the first 10 years – but then, just two months after Congress’ yes vote, the Bush team revealed that the 10-year cost would actually be $534 billion. Which apparently it knew all along.

    How come the conservatives in high dudgeon about Gruber didn’t scream about Bush’s war and Medicare deceptions? Because that GOP regime was on their team, so they turned a blind eye. And perhaps because there was nobody like Gruber running around speaking inconvenient truths about the sausage-making process.

    Actually, for all we know, there were lots of Grubers a decade ago – but there was no Twitter or YouTube, no ubiquitous digital vigilance. The sausage-makers were free to say all kinds of cynical stuff, and undoubtedly they have done so since America began, without fear that it would go “viral” and detonate partisan heads. Without excusing Gruber, he had the misfortune of opining on sausage-making in this particular era.

    But here’s some perspective – just to demonstrate that his remarks are much ado about nothing: The new Obamacare enrollment period opened Saturday to robust business; roughly 100,000 applications for new coverage were posted on day one. Ten million people, previously uninsured, have obtained coverage since Obamacare was launched. Consumers who bought coverage on the federal site last year face an average 7 percent premium hike – 3 points lower than the average private coverage hike, pre-Obamacare.

    And check out this Gallup poll: Turns out, 74 percent of the people who bought last year in the new Obamacare marketplaces now rate their coverage as “excellent” or “good.” (81 percent of all people with health coverage say it’s excellent or good.)  And 75 percent of the Obamacare people say they’re satisfied with the cost of their coverage – 14 points higher than the satisfaction rating for all insured Americans.

    If only Gallup had asked the newly insured, the millions who are being covered for the first time thanks to Obamacare, whether they give a rat’s ass about the remarks of Jonathan Gruber. But we already know the answer.


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