A tea party group said its members will greet Jonathan Gruber, the man at the center of Obamacare’s troubled public image, with T-shirts reading “I’m with Stupid” when he shows up to defend himself Tuesday before what’s likely to be a hostile congressional panel.
Republicans call Mr. Gruber, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a key architect of the Affordable Care Act, while Democrats are rushing to put distance between them and their erstwhile star after several rounds of caught-on-tape remarks about the “stupidity of the American voter” and the need to game budget rules to pass Obamacare were made public.
The T-shirts, which were produced by Tea Party Patriots, are another symbol of how controversial Mr. Gruber has become as he prepares to face the House oversight committee.
“With all that’s going on in the Capitol, we didn’t want Mr. Gruber’s curtain call to go unnoticed,” said Jenny Beth Martin, Tea Party Patriots co-founder. “We commemorated his appearance, and in the spirit of the Season, we’d like to offer the Obamacare architect a dozen. He can use them as stocking stuffers for the economically unsophisticated.”
Despite some gains, the health care law continues to suffer in public opinion from unpopular mandates, its shoddy rollout and President Obama’s inaccurate pledge that everyone could keep their health plans under his overhaul.
And Mr. Gruber’s remarks, captured on tape years ago but just surfacing in recent months, have reignited many of those concerns.
Mr. Gruber said the health care bill was written in a “tortured” way to ensure the Congressional Budget Office didn’t score the individual mandate as a tax, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld the mandate as constitutional under Congress’ taxing power.
“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage,” Mr. Gruber said at the time. “And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to get the thing to pass.”
Mr. Gruber, who declined to comment Monday before the hearing, said that he regretted the remarks.
But Republicans seized on his speeches as proof of an underhanded scheme to obscure Obamacare’s impact before it passed in 2010.
“Together, such statements and Mr. Gruber’s recently-uncovered comments highlight that the 2010 healthcare law was bad policy, passed deceptively, and it needs to be repealed,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, who serves on the committee.
Democrats are scrambling to put distance — literally — between themselves and Mr. Gruber.
Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was called to testify alongside Mr. Gruber at the hearing, but an assistant Health and Human Services secretary sent a letter to the committee asking if she could testify on her own.
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa didn’t release ground rules for the hearing by late Monday, although a spokeswoman last week said “at past hearings, government officials have testified alongside other non-administration witnesses.”
Republican investigators want Mrs. Tavenner to explain why 400,000 dental plans were included in Obamacare enrollment figures reported in the weeks leading up to the second round of open enrollment.
When the dental plans are excluded, Obamacare enrollment fell to 6.7 million in the first go-around, or less than the 7 million target the Congressional Budget Office had estimated.
The oversight panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, insisted Monday the hearing is a waste of time.
“To spend hours upon hours of time trying to get Mr. Gruber to explain himself, to me it does not insure one more person, it does not help heal anybody, and it doesn’t do anybody any good,” he said.
Mr. Gruber’s economic models helped Massachusetts forge its health reforms in 2006. He parlayed that into an adviser gig for the Obama administration, which paid him nearly $400,000 for his work on the nationwide reforms.
But it’s his mouth, not his models, that have him in the hot seat.
In one clip, Mr. Gruber said the law’s tax-credits subsidies should only flow to people who buy coverage on the state-run health exchanges, and not the ones set up by the federal government, as a way to encourage states to set up exchanges, though most did not.
That is resonating in a lawsuit now pending before the Supreme Court.
“Regardless of how much time the lawsuit issues receive at the hearing, I think Gruber has already had a significant impact on the litigation,” said Sam Kazman, general counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is funding the lawsuit and one identical to it at the circuit court level.
• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.