Grover Norquist's deluded scheme: How conservatives are using "Gruber!" to push a coup at CBO

"Grubergate" is giving conservatives additional weaponry in their fight to install a supply-side hack at CBO

Published November 24, 2014 7:03PM (EST)

Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform                                (AP/Yuri Gripas)
Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform (AP/Yuri Gripas)

It was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who provided the best early example of where the Republican Party messaging apparatus is headed in the next two years. Gingrich, appearing on a CNN panel offering insta-analysis of President Obama's executive action announcement last Thursday, offered these choice words: "This was a Gruber speech."

This was clearly a phrase he had been practicing in the mirror for several days. It didn't make much sense -- the vague implication was that President Obama was a liar -- but it did serve the sort of raw, indiscreet political game that Gingrich so enjoys: It not only kept the name "Gruber" in the political conversation, but expanded the fields to which it could be applied, however incoherently.

In Jonathan Gruber -- the Obamacare consultant who's been caught on video acting like a caricature of an elitist, paternalistic liberal technocrat -- the Republican Party has found a delicious new Democratic Party avatar to pound away at for the next infinity years. Gruber, and his musings on the drafting of the Affordable Care Act and the "stupidity of the American voter," lends Republicans a power source worth five or six Benghazis. Any error or untoward move that the Obama administration makes in the next two years will be a "Gruber."

While Newt Gingrich goes about trying to link Obama's immigration actions to Gruber, another influential Republican is working to apply Weaponized Gruber to a separate area of governance. Grover Norquist, the dry, ubiquitous anti-tax advocate, is using Gruber to rally support for a coup at the Congressional Budget Office.

The current head of the CBO, which scores prospective legislation to determine, among other things, its impact on budget deficits, is a fairly evenhanded technocrat named Doug Elmendorf. His term is about to expire, and one of the interesting (albeit insidery) questions in Washington is whether the Republicans will appoint him to another term or replace him.

The decision is about more than replacing a bureaucrat, though. It's about the extent to which the Republican Party wants to turn CBO from a non-ideological operation into an outpost of questionable conservative economic dogma. The battle is between the center-right, still tethered to mainstream (as in Keynesian) economics, and right-wing supply-siders like Norquist who think all good things come from tax cuts -- and that those tax cuts will spark such extraordinary economic growth that they will offset any revenue loss projected in CBO's "static" scoring. If a right-wing ideologue were to take over at CBO and use conservatives' preferred "dynamic" scoring approach to, say, tax reform, incoming House Ways and Means chairman Paul Ryan would be more easily able to cut taxes and maintain revenue-neutrality without having to eliminate some of the politically popular "loopholes" in the tax code.

Norquist and fellow supply-side ideologues see their opportunity in Gruber. In some of the videos that generated controversy, Gruber has described the lengths to which Obamacare's drafters went to secure a positive score from CBO. Republicans view this as manipulating the CBO to cover up the true, deficit-busting costs of Obamacare. For Norquist et al., this is a strike against Elmendorf's tenure on incompetency grounds -- that he "got Grubered," and needs to go.

Late last week Norquist sent "an open letter ... to House and Senate GOP Leadership laying out seven reasons not to reappoint Doug Elmendorf as Director of the Congressional Budget Office." Atop the list:

Elmendorf’s CBO Got Grubered.  It was Doug Elmendorf who adopted the scoring models for Obamacare given to him by Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber.  These inaccurate models were key to CBO’s assertion that Obamacare would be good for health insurance markets and reduce the deficit.  That would be the same Jonathan Gruber who said that lying to the American people was necessary to pass Obamacare because Americans are stupid.

The letter somehow manages to increase in hilarity as it goes on. It tries to paint Elmendorf, a centrist budget wonk who's not always been easy on the Obama administration, as a radical left-winger.

Elmendorf is a liberal Democrat appointed by former Senator Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) under a Democrat Senate majority. It’s a longtime rule of the U.S. Congress that the majority party gets to pick their own staff.  That’s what Senate Democrats did when they appointed one of their own, Doug Elmendorf. It’s absurd to say that Democrats have that right, but that Republicans are not free to pick their own CBO Director when they are in the majority.

Elmendorf served on President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors and in the Clinton Treasury Department.  He was a senior fellow at the liberal establishment Brookings Institution.  He even got a Ph.D. from Harvard under the dissertation guidance of former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.  There is no doubt that he is a career Man of the Left.

Has Grover Norquist ever talked with a real "Man of the Left"? Because such a man would not have nice things to say about a figure who was appointed by Kent Conrad, served on Clinton's CEA, was a fellow at Brookings, and whose mentor was Larry Summers. Not nice things at all. A Man of the Left would probably consider Elmendorf a greater threat to The Project than Norquist himself, who at least would exacerbate the contradictions in liberal capitalism and hasten its collapse, etc.

Gruber, in his role as the sneering icon of Democratic dishonesty, offers conservatives a foil against which to promote their own dishonest dogma. His value to the Republican Party right now is immeasurable. Do not be shocked to hear him mentioned, in any context to serve any conservative purpose, no matter how tenuous, until the end of time.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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