A Capitol drama: Gruber, a Harry Potter-length law and a ‘Hunger Games’ scheme

Mike: Cynthia, you asked me to ask you about the whole Jonathan Gruber matter, so: what do you think? And how is he related to Hans Gruber, the bad guy from “Die Hard?”

Cynthia: Oh, yes. I remember now. We were “expert” political guests, right? At a lovely gathering of conservative ladies, when out of the blue this “Gruber” fellow came up.

“What do you say in response to comments Gruber made in 2013 about the deceptive packaging of the Affordable Care Act?” asked one fetching sophisticate.

“Nothing. I’ve never heard of Gruber,” I said, like an expert.

Since then, I watched the video of this bureaucrat make cocky, off-the-cuff remarks about the law, and what do I think?

Who cares what this numbskull said?

It’s obvious to me hard-liners in the Republican Party are dredging up old old tapes to pressure newly empowered GOP leadership to repeal Obamacare.

And the only thing I can say about this Gruber blowhard’s connection to “Die Hard” is that they appear to share the same surname.

Mike: They share a surname, and both Messrs. Gruber wanted to fleece people using subterfuge. But one was fictional and lost to the good guy, while the other got away with it and made millions of dollars.

His comments do give rise to an ethical or philosophical question, however. Does representative democracy require candor from those involved in policymaking, or does the end — “good policy” from an individual’s viewpoint — justify whatever means are necessary to get it enacted?

Cynthia: In representative democracy, it’s the motivations of elected lawmakers who vote that matter, and of course honesty is expected. What some obscure guy says he meant a year ago is irrelevant to any serious conversation about the merits of the Affordable Care Act today.

Thanks to the ACA, more people have insurance, health care costs are declining and hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid report fewer people relying on charity care. “Obamacare” is working, but has flaws that need serious attention from people who are serious about solving problems.

The bigger philosophical question is, since Republicans keep picking at the scabs of the new law instead of working to fix it, how long must we respond to their complaints about bleeding?

What is the Republican solution? If not Obamacare, then what?

Mike: If honesty matters, then why not take policymakers at their black-and-white letter word and enforce the law as written? Why the need for regulatory duct tape and bubble gum to piece it together, with magical waivers waiving away the politically unpopular pieces? I appreciate your candor acknowledging problems with the ACA, but why won’t the White House and congressional Democrats be honest and admit the law has some mistakes that need legislative — not regulatory — fixes?

Some parts of the ACA are effective; you are bound to get something right in a law longer than most “Harry Potter” novels. To share your candor, I even think some of the policy objectives in the ACA were correct, such as moving health insurance to an individually purchased item rather than an employer-provided benefit. But other pieces are unpopular, expensive and overreaching. A one-size-fits-all approach might work for Washington, but not for the rest of us.

Republican solutions focus on increasing market competition and letting reforms take hold where insurance has always been regulated: the states. You know, like the Republican-led effort here in Maine known as P.L. 90. We don’t need Washington to fix all our problems!

Cynthia: See, that’s the thing. The Affordable Care Act is a market-based solution supported by insurance companies. It relies on private companies to offer a range of policies on a competitive basis, each with a minimum set of required benefits. It’s a platform on which private industry can prosper, sort of like our highway system. Government builds the roads for private commerce, but trucks have to pass inspection.

And I’m not sure what Democrats you are referring to as not being honest or open to fixing the flaws of the law. Just because Gruber said something stupid doesn’t mean he speaks for Democrats.

I do love the idea of J.K. Rowling re-writing Obamacare, though. That would get Congress reading again instead of starring on cable news shows.

Mike: Of course health insurance companies love Obamacare! The government is forcing people to buy its products under penalty of “tax.” Banks loved their bailouts, while wind producers and oil companies alike love their tax treatment. Just because an industry has been bought off doesn’t mean the policy is correct.

If we are comparing our political system to young adult fiction, an analogy to “Hunger Games” is probably more appropriate. An overbearing Capitol that tries to run the lives of those in the hinterlands in order to further concentrate its own wealth and power. But ultimately the bad guys lose there, just like Herr Gruber in “Die Hard.” So the question is: will life imitate art, or will the Jonathan Gruber story lack the happy ending?

Cynthia: Neither. The millions of people who now have health insurance because of Obamacare will be pitted against those who have been adversely affected by the law’s quirks going into the 2016 elections. Let’s hope the people we sent to Washington will work to resolve conflicts within the law and bring people together. Enough of the drama!