When will public figures espousing particular positions on political issues ever learn to disclose actual or perceived conflicts of interest?
The latest individual to be confronted with the consequences of not doing this is Jonathan Gruber, MIT economist and leading voice in support of the health care reform legislation making its way toward final passage:
One of the key voices for Congressional health care legislation, MIT economist Jon Gruber, is taking fire from the precincts of the left that oppose the Senate plan over the fact that he is on contract with Department of Health and Human Services.
He’s been paid $297,600, according to federal documents, to produce “a technical memorandum on the estimated changes in health insurance coverage and associated costs and impacts to the government under alternative specifications of health system reform.” The contract, which was awarded June 19, wasn’t widely known or regularly disclosed.
“[D]on’t you think it’s rather, um, dubious that the guy evaluating the heath care reform–for $300,000–is also the package’s single biggest champion? And no one has been transparent about this contract?” writes Firedoglake blogger Marcy Wheeler of the contract, which was first mentioned on DailyKos.
It is dubious — although I have to say that Marcy Wheeler’s shock is rather dubious, too, given her interest in killing the current legislation. Having said that, Gruber’s defense is pretty lame:
Gruber told POLITICO that he has told reporters of the contract “whenever they asked” and noted that he formally disclosed that “I am a paid consultant to the Obama Administration” in a form attached to his most recent, December 24 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, though it wasn’t widely known by reporters on the beat.
Which, of course, is the point. It’s a bit disingenuous for Gruber to say he “formally disclosed” this connection when, on the less formal level that policy experts or administration figures talk to journalists, that connection was not known — or not widely known.
Does Gruber’s failure to disclose his HHS gig discredit everything he’s said and written about health care reform? Of course not. But it certainly raises question that, merely by dint of having to be asked, tend to undermine his support for the hcr legislation. Ezra Klein, who has written extensively, substantively, and knowledgeably about this legislation as well as health care reform in general, is annoyed — understandably so:
I’ve spoken occasionally with Gruber for years now, and never noticed a shade of difference in his positions. Even so, his government contract should have been disclosed to me, and in the future, when I quote Gruber, it will be disclosed to you. In the meantime, if the administration is indeed listening to Gruber, I hope they heed him on this.
Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic did know about Gruber’s HHS consulting contract, but acknowledges that his readers may not have:
Gruber’s role as an adviser to the administration and Congress was hardly a secret. I have written as much on several occasions. (Here’s one instance and here’s another.)
Having said all that, Wheeler’s criticism gave me some pause. (While I don’t always agree with her, I’ve always found her to be fair.) On some occasions, I’ve cited Gruber without mentioning that he was an adviser. I assumed readers knew that because I’d mentioned it before and because, at least within policy circles, it’s widely known. But, of course, not everybody reads every item I write. And not everybody follows this debate that closely. In the future, I will mention Gruber’s role as an adviser every time, not just some of the time. Readers are entitled to that information, so that they can make their own judgments.