Four Hours in Obamacare Hell: Gruber vs. Gowdy, and Other Highlights
Led by outgoing chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the hearing featured MIT professor and Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services head Marilyn Tavenner. This well-résuméd tag-team was joined shortly after the hearing started by Ari Goldman, a bearded millennial whose claim to fame is that he loves Obamacare, and who will get no more coverage here than he deserves.
Gruber, who's been getting consistently flogged in the media for the past few weeks, took center stage in this hearing, but Tavenner got her fair share of attention. And the two took a similar tack – apologize profusely for their offenses, and then double down on them. Tavenner did a better job than Gruber did at appearing contrite, mostly by flinching from her microphone. (Issa and others had to exhort her several times to scoot closer to it.) Gruber, for his part, smirked as Issa played his infamous comments on "the stupidity of the American voter." It wasn't the last time he would smirk.
A prominent theme for Tavenner, who spoke first, was the absurd insistence on using numbers to combat Republicans' drawing attention to her bad numbers. She admitted from the start to a "regrettable mistake" in double-counting Obamacare enrollees with dental plans. Sometimes she stood by the revised number of 6.7 million enrollees, and sometimes she claimed that she did not have a number to divulge. She insisted that Obamacare is now "streamlined," "simpler," and "faster"; by contrast, on multiple other occasions, she described Obamacare as a work in progress, needing improvement. "There's lots of other things that can change." She said "we have tried to be transparent" while her department provided Oversight with password-protected documents in six-point font.
Gruber denounced his well-publicized comments as "arrogant," "glib," the result of "trying to make myself seem more important than I am." Ranking committee member Elijah Cummings [D-Md.] condemned the comments as well, but for a strange reason: not for their contemptuous tone or for the deception they revealed, but rather for giving a "PR gift to the Republican Party."
Gruber did not, however, denounce his words as false. Several Republicans cut through his apology evasion, which he returned to over and over (doubtless Tuesday saw the most frequent use of the word "glib" in congressional history). Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) in particular hit the point several times: "What I'm struggling with is whether your apology is because you said it, or because you meant it." "When did you realize that these comments were inappropriate? 'Cause it took you about a year to apologize." "Do you see a trend developing here, Mr. Gruber?" Rep. Tom Rice asked him, "So what you're saying is, you were lying then?" Gruber responded, "I was conjecturing in an area where I shouldn't." Rep. Tom DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) asked, "In terms of content, you were not lying, you had some basis?" Gruber refused to answer.
At the hearing's closing, Rep. Issa told Gruber, "Most of us believe that you believed a lot of what you said."
Both Gruber and Tavenner oversaw multiple embarrassing seesaw exchanges with their questioners. For Tavenner, the magical phrase was "I will get you that information." (She is not the first to use this tactic; Kathleen Sebelius, who resigned as head of the Department of Health and Human Services in June of this year, deferred in exactly the same way when Congress questioned her about Obamacare in October 2013.) Tavenner used this phrase no fewer than ten times with Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.); Collins finally put a bow on the conversation, saying, "It must be difficult for you to say that over and over again."
Gruber's go-to phrases were "I don't recall" and "you can talk to my counsel." He used these especially when congressmen demanded information on exactly how much taxpayer money he had received for his work on Obamacare. (Figures oscillated between $400,000 and $4 million, with much confusion on federal versus state compensation.) Several congressmen expressed frank bewilderment over Gruber's lapse in memory, including Reps. Gowdy, Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), and Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.). In the words of Rep. Farenthold, "[d]o you feel bad taking all this money from the people you called stupid?" Gruber at least could recall an answer to that one: "I think it was appropriate," he said.
The congressmen who took part in these embarrassing back-and-forths would finish visibly disgusted. Tavenner would return to cringing from the microphone. Gruber would smirk.
There is so much more to take from this hearing that space restrictions forbid this author to explore. There are Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY)'s questions, so glowingly complimentary of Obamacare that one wonders if Tavenner herself wrote them. There is the remarkable difference in specificity, from both Gruber and Tavenner, between when Republicans questioned them and when Democrats did. There is Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.)'s stentorian proclamation of "lies on top of lies," and the sad tale of the death of Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.)'s husband. There is Rep. Cummings's shocking closing, in which he ruled that the true lesson to take away from this hearing is that Democrats should watch what they say, lest they be quoted.
And there is the extremely disturbing exchange between Gruber and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), in which Massie exposed Gruber's advocacy for abortion as a social good and wondered if this same macabre mentality applies to the elderly and infirm. "What did you mean by 'positive selection' in abortion? If there are fewer elderly people, wouldn't that save a ton of money, too? Do you understand the dangerous implications?" Gruber: "I have no philosophy of abortion. I have no philosophy of end-of-life care."
The biggest takeaway from this hearing is that everyone should be watching these things. Congressional hearings' reputation for being boring keeps a lot of American eyeballs elsewhere. This must stop. The hearings are not boring, as evidenced by the fiery reactions to Trey Gowdy's explosive questioning. These videos can be aired in the background, during daily chores. They can be watched in installments over lunch. They can be screened in groups, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style.
And there is more to this point than just the reassurance that congressional hearings are sufficiently entertaining to avoid Americans' disdain. There is not just a should here, but a must: Americans are duty-bound to know how they're being represented. Voting as a "one and done" proposition is how republics get destroyed; it's how unelected academics like Jonathan Gruber, with regulatory power they should never have been given, wind up in the congressional hot seat in the first place. Americans of all stripes should be cognizant of hearings like this – and cognizant continuously of the substance of those they send to Congress.
Gruber and Tavenner both should have come apart from cognitive dissonance on Tuesday. That they kept straight faces is no surprise. But hopefully the American people watching them did notice how little what they said squared with their own words – both in prior years and in the very same hearing – let alone with reality. Mammoth, destructive, morally bankrupt Obamacare is the lie; here, before us and on video, are the liars.
Now what will we do?
Drew Belsky is American Thinker's deputy editor. Contact him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @DJB627.