WASHINGTON — MIT economist Jonathan Gruber — an adviser on the president's health care law — told Congress on Tuesday he was glib and "inexcusably arrogant" when he said it was "the stupidity of the American voter" that led to the law's passage. Democrats tried to limit the damage as the GOP raked Gruber at a four-hour hearing, but they acknowledged he has given Republicans a political gift "wrapped in a bow."
Gruber told groups in 2012 and 2013 that voter stupidity and a "lack of transparency" were important to passing the legislation without any GOP support. Appearing before the House Oversight committee, Gruber expanded on earlier apologies, repeatedly saying "I was conjecturing in areas beyond my expertise."
Gruber said his comments were uninformed, "glib, thoughtless and sometimes downright insulting." He said he used exaggerated expertise "to try to make myself look smarter." He said the law's passage was transparent and heavily debated in public, despite his earlier comments. And Gruber said he was not the "architect" of the law.
But Republican Committee Chairman Darrell Issa of California called Gruber a crucial player in the legislation as he opened the latest hearing into what he calls "Obamacare." He and other Republicans sarcastically praised Gruber for "telling the truth" in his earlier remarks, while also hammering his testimony Tuesday and demanding details of how much state and federal governments paid him for consulting on his models for health care costs."
Democrats tried to make the most of having an often-vilified witness retracting some of his most damaging remarks. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the panel, glared at Gruber and called his remarks from 2012 and 2013 "absolutely stupid" and "incredibly disrespectful."
Cummings said Gruber had handed the Republicans a political gift via "an unforced error."
Also testifying Tuesday was Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Issa denied her request to be placed on a separate witness panel from Gruber.
Tavenner is on the hot seat because she gave Issa the wrong enrollment figures when she last testified in September. At that point, she said there were 7.3 million people signed up through the insurance exchanges that offer subsidized private coverage under Obama's law. It turned out her agency had over-counted that by about 400,000 people, an embarrassing discrepancy discovered by Issa's investigators after he demanded to see the records. The corrected number for 2014 is 6.7 million.
Tavenner apologized for the mistake Tuesday, saying it was caused by an inadvertent double-counting of people with both dental and medical insurance coverage.
Issa demanded more documents about the miscount, saying his staff had easily discovered the incorrect numbers. Issa calls the health care law "the poster child for this administration's broken transparency promises."
GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio called the enrollment miscount "a deliberate deception" that was typical of Obama administration misstatements about the landmark law.
The hearing came as prominent Democrats debate the wisdom of devoting much of 2009 — Obama's first year as president — to the bruising battle for the health care legislation, which finally passed without a single Republican vote. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York is among those Democrats now criticizing the timing. Top liberals are defending Obama, creating new divisions among Democrats right after major losses in this year's elections.
Like many congressional hearings, Tuesday's session may provide partisan fireworks while doing little or nothing to change government policy. The president says he will veto any effort to overturn the health care law, should such a bill reach his desk after Republicans add Senate control to their House majority next year.
Issa's bare-knuckled inquiries into administration policies and missteps have often infuriated Democrats while providing welcome fodder for conservative talk shows, speeches and campaigns.
His broadsides against the IRS, State Department and other agencies may have helped excite the Republican base in the November midterm elections. But Issa sometimes embarrasses GOP leaders, as when he cut off the committee microphone at an IRS hearing when Cummings was trying to speak. And some Republican lawmakers chastised Issa when he called then-Obama spokesman Jay Carney a "paid liar."