We may have entered a new and frightening era. It appears that instead of policy generating talking points and soundbites, we now have talking points that generate policy.
There are three key examples of talking points that have driven policy. Two of them have led us to our current predicament, and one of them may get us out of it (although at the cost of imposing bad policy).
First, back in 2010, when Obamacare was being debated, Senator Grassley (R – Iowa) decided to introduce and amendment to make Congress and their staff purchase health insurance through the newly created exchanges. He assumed Democrats would refuse, and then Republicans would have a talking point about how the new law wasn’t good enough for Congress but was being forced on the American people nonetheless. Democrats called his bluff and agreed to get insurance through the exchanges. This made Congress different from other large organizations under Obamacare, which simply continue to provide health insurance to their employees as a benefit. We’ll come back to this in a minute, because it’s the set-up for talking point number 3.
Second, in 2012, when the debt ceiling had to be raised, the concession was simply that the Senate pass a budget. The Senate’s inability to pass a budget was a major right-wing talking point. The truth was that Democrats had basically always had a general budget outline, but saw no real point in passing a budget that would just get voted down in the House. (It is perhaps not surprising that the House, having passed 40+ pieces of legislation to repeal Obamacare, all of which were clearly not going anywhere in the Senate, did not share this practical view of governance in which votes are not supposed to be purely symbolic).
So the Senate passed a budget. And then the House refused to negotiate. At the time, Paul Ryan (R- Wisconsin, Chair of the House Budget Committee) explicitly said that the House would not negotiate until the debt ceiling, because they wanted to use it as leverage to extract concessions. This has been the intentional strategy of the Republican party since January.
Despite this failure to negotiate has over the budget, the two parties actually basically agree that the government should continue to be funded at the same level as it has been for the first part of 2013. The disagreement is over Obamacare. Which brings us to the third talking point that is now making policy.
Senator Vitter (R – Louisiana) has introduced an amendment to take health insurance subsidies away from Congress and their staff. The House is now attaching this amendment as part of their demands for passing a continuing resolution (keeping the government open). Before the Grassley amendment, Congress and staff would have simply gotten insurance through their employer, the federal government, the way the employees of most large organizations do. However, since the Grassley amendment requires them to buy insurance on the exchanges, the office of personnel management decided that the money they used to spend on staff by providing health insurance as a benefit would now be spent subsidizing health insurance that was purchased individually.
Vitter, and now the House, have decided that this amounts to special treatment for Congress. (In reality, all it amounts to is not cutting their wages arbitrarily). Now, I don’t really care about the wages of Congresspeople, but I do care about their staff. And you should too! Staff people are the only people other than lobbyists who actually know what goes into legislation. Cutting the wages of staff (which are already really, really low, particularly if you factor in how insanely expensive living in D.C. is) will lead to more staff turnover and a worse staff. Effectively it transfers power from congressional staff to outside groups, like lobbyists and think-tanks.
Passing the Vitter amendment is probably better than shutting down the government. But it serves no purpose other than satisfying a made-up talking point. It also hurts congressional staff and makes our government more dependent on outside groups for their policy analysis. This is what happens when we govern by talking point.
P.S. You may have noticed that this is basically a conservative Republican phenomena. I think this has a lot to do with the closed information loop that is current Republican media. Apparently, it is common to not read any media sources like the NY Times, or other mainstream media, not even as an insight into what Democrats and moderates are thinking. I’m still somewhat baffled by this. For example, right now I find reading Robert Costa of National Review Online indispensable for finding out what’s happening inside the Republican party. Given how easy it is to at least check in on major liberal columns and blogs, mainstream news, and major conservative columns and blogs it seems odd to me not to read at least a little of each.