Who is the architect of Obamacare? Well, we know who isn't.

MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who has said some controversial things about Obamacare, also said he isn't the author of the law. But folks like him – not legislators – are just the sorts of people who do write laws.

Molly Riley/AP
MIT economist Jonathan Gruber listens as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.

Recent testimony by a health care adviser to the Obama administration raises a big question: Who actually writes our laws?

Despite his previous claims that he had helped write the Affordable Care Act, MIT economist Jonathan Gruber struck a much more modest pose before the  House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform: “I was not the ‘architect’ of President Obama’s health care plan.” 

YouTube videos have shown Professor Gruber suggesting that there was trickery in the drafting of the legislation, and that the American people were too stupid to understand it. In one of the videos,  he also said: “What's important to remember politically about this, is if you're a state and you don't set up an [insurance] exchange, that means your citizens don't get their tax credits.”

Because opponents of the law are making that very argument before the US Supreme Court, its supporters are eager to minimize his role. In his testimony, he was apparently trying to limit the political damage that he had caused.

He obviously had something to do with the development of the proposal: Even before his election, President Obama  publicly acknowledged that he drawn on Gruber’s ideas. But as with so much internal White House politics, we will not really know the extent of his contribution until the administration’s archives become public, many years from now.

Whatever his role,  writes Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol, “the architects who fashioned the Affordable Care Act were elected representatives and senators serving in Congress in 2009 and 2010, along with the president of the United States.” 

In a formal sense, that statement is obviously true: The lawmakers voted on it, the president signed it, and they were all accountable to the voters.

In a more practical sense, however, it is hard to argue that elected officials were the legislation’s architects. In the construction of a building, the architect is the one who plans every detail down to the inch. Most people would regard the “architects” as the people who actually wrote the language of the bill. And those people were surely not the elected representatives and senators, much less the president.

Ask anyone who has worked in the federal government: Elected officials generally do not draft bills. They delegate that task to staffers and consultants – people such as Gruber.  One study of legislative drafting included these quotations from congressional aides:

“Senators are generalists. Very few senators write their own language.”

“The vast majority of members deal at the conceptual level.”

“[Senators] rely upon staff. They set the goals and ask staff to 'work it out.’ ”

“[T]here are very few instances when a senator is in the room when amendments are being drafted.”

“[T]here are only one or two senators who write text.”

Members of Congress often do not even read the bills. Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, who next month will become the longest-serving lawmaker on Capitol Hill, has  openly mocked the idea that reading the bills is important. Former Sen. Max Baucus, who chaired the Senate Finance Committee during the passage of the Affordable Care Act, admitted that he had not read it all the way through. “I don’t think you want me to waste my time to read every page of the health care bill,”  Senator Baucus said. “You know why? It’s statutory language. ... We hire experts.”

The case before the Supreme Court is all about the meaning of the statutory language. Ironically, the people who passed the bill are not especially qualified to weigh in on that question. They will have to ask the architects.

Jack Pitney writes his "Looking for Trouble" blog exclusively for Decoder Voices.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.