Press Should Take Finger Off Button in "Nuclear Option" Health Care Coverage
Media conservatives aren't content to merely misinform regarding the content of progressive health insurance reform legislation. They want to misinform about the legislative process used to pass that legislation, too. Just think of it: Death panels passed using a nuclear option. What American could support that?
In recent days, talk of Senate Democrats using the budget reconciliation process to pass health care reform legislation has grown. According to Senate rules, bills advanced through the process can't be filibustered, and so the 60-vote threshold that must be met to defeat a filibuster would not apply. Republicans used reconciliation in exactly this way during the Bush years to pass tax cuts in 2001, 2003, and 2005. Senate Republicans also used the reconciliation process to pass a bill permitting oil drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (The final version of that bill signed by Bush did not contain the provision on drilling.) So long as the legislation in question impacts the budget, doing so is within regular Senate order.
Conservatives in the media, however, have now chosen to portray such a course of action as the dreaded "nuclear option." As usual, a little history reveals a lot of hypocrisy. The phrase was actually coined by former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) in 2003 during the Democratic filibuster of U.S. Court of Appeals nominee Miguel Estrada. At the time, Republican aides discussed changing the rules of the Senate to make filibusters of judicial nominees out of order. Lott, reflecting the drastic nature of such a change, called it a "nuclear option." Starting in 2005, Republicans noted that the term polled badly. They began referring to such a rules change as the "constitutional option," and claimed that only Democrats called it a "nuclear option." The media quickly fell in line, repeating the falsehood.
Unsurprisingly, the hypocrisy has continued. Passing budget-related legislation through the reconciliation process and the "nuclear option" have nothing to do with each other.
This hasn't stopped the conservative media from conflating the two. The goal is to portray progressives as a group of anti-democratic radicals, forcing through a supposedly unpopular bill using procedural tricks -- or, in Chris Matthews' words, "blow[ing] up the Senate rules." Fox News vice president and Washington managing editor Bill Sammon was one of the first to draw the false equivalency back in June, and in recent days, the chorus has only grown. Dick Morris did the same on August 10, and Sean Hannity has repeatedly pushed the distortion. The Fox Nation website even chose to illustrate the story using a mushroom cloud.
Just as they did several years ago, multiple mainstream media figures have taken up the right's deceitful talking point, among them A.B. Stoddard of The Hill, Matthews, and even CNN hosts Anderson Cooper and Kiran Chetry. Thus far, factual explanations, such as the one provided by CNN's Josh Levs, have been few and far between.
This distortion has jumped from the media to the highest levels of the Republican Party. When Hannity hosted RNC chairman Michael Steele, he asked about the "by any means necessary" approach Democrats were considering. "Does this mean the will of the American people," Hannity asked, "as evidenced by just about every credible poll, means nothing to them?" (It seems as though NBC/Wall Street Journal polls are no longer credible to Hannity.) Steele agreed: "If it means the nuclear option, it's going to be the nuclear option."
The right-wing distortion here is obvious and blatant. For the sake of its credibility, the media needs to take its finger off the "nuclear" button.