That “Controversial” Reconciliation Process


I was pretty damn certain that if you went back to coverage of the 2003 tax cuts, passed by reconciliation, it’s not just that Republicans didn’t have a problem with reconciliation back then, the media just didn’t make a big deal out of it. After all, we’re talking about a decades-old procedural option that sets up a situation in which the side with more votes wins. It’s neither interesting nor controversial.

Jamison Foser did the legwork:

The Senate reconciliation vote occurred on May 23, 2003. In the month of May, only one New York Times article so much as mentioned the use of reconciliation for the tax cuts — a May 13, 2003, article that devoted a few paragraphs to wrangling over whether Senate Republicans could assign the bill number they wanted (S.2) to a bill approved via reconciliation. The Times also used the word “reconciliation” in a May 9, 2003, editorial, but gave no indication whatsoever of what it meant.

And that’s more attention than most news outlets gave to the use of reconciliation that month. The Washington Post didn’t run a single article, column, editorial, or letter to the editor that used the words “reconciliation” and “senate.” Not one. USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press were similarly silent.

Cable news didn’t care, either. CNN ran a quote by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley about the substance of the tax cuts in which he used the word “reconciliation” in passing — but that was it. Fox News aired two interviews in which Republican members of Congress referred to the reconciliation process in order to explain why the tax cuts would be temporary, but neither they nor the reporters interviewing them treated reconciliation as a controversial tactic.

And ABC, CBS, NBC? Nothing, nothing, nothing.

This is a reminder, first and foremost, that the nation’s prestige political journalists aren’t very good at their jobs. You always have the option of not giving in to the power of the right-wing noise machine. But time and again reporters and editors choose, as autonomous moral agents, to do so.

But of course it’s also a reminder of the continuing power of the right-wing noise machine. The ability of talking points to go through the Drudge/Limbaugh/Fox conveyor-belt means that while conservative claims may not always carry the day in the public discourse, the right basically gets to decide what the debate is about on any given day. If conservatives decide we’re going to have a debate about whether reconciliation is appropriate, then we have the debate. And since we’re having the debate, it becomes true to call it a “controversial” process. And so to your average person who doesn’t pay much attention, suddenly it appears that something shady is happening.