Former congressional staffer Scott Lilly, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, testified at a hearing on Capitol Hill last week that lawmakers might be able to reach a bipartisan consensus on how to improve the congressional budget process if Washington were not ruled by public relations people and message mavens.
Lilly, who served as clerk and staff director of the House Appropriations Committee before moving to the liberal-leaning think tank, suggested to lawmakers, who are considering a move from an annual to a biennial budget, that the “biggest failing of the current process is that it has truly failed to inform our citizenry as to why the federal budget is growing at such a rapid pace.”
In a commentary shortly after his testimony, Lilly added that, “The current Congressional budget process is too elaborate, too time consuming and worse off controlled by message makers instead of legislators.” (Emphasis added.)
Lilly’s words could have applied to every other issue members of Congress take up, especially health care. Had message-makers not been in control of the debate over health care reform from the get-go, our citizenry would not be so ill informed about “Obamacare.” Even that word itself was coined by message-makers no reason other than to persuade us to think a certain way about the Affordable Care Act and to vote against any politician who supported it.
Obama had not been in office more than four months when pre-eminent pollster and message-maker Frank Luntz sent Republican politicians and operatives a 28-page document entitled “The Language of Healthcare 2009: The 10 Rules for Stopping the ‘Washington Takeover’ of Healthcare.”
This was not a policy paper. There was hardly a word about what Republicans should do to improve the U.S. health care system. It was a PR strategy for how Republicans could capitalize by using emotion-laden words and phrases to condemn anything the Democrats came up with. Keep in mind that congressional leaders and the White House were still in the process of exploring options for legislation at the time. Actual bills that Congress would ultimately vote for or against would not materialize for many months.
“This document is based on polling results and Instant Response dial sessions conducted in April 2009,” Luntz wrote. “It captures not just what Americans want to see but exactly what they want to hear. The Words That Work boxes that follow are already being used by a few Congressional and Senatorial Republicans. From today forward they should be used by everyone.”
And they were. Especially the phrases “Washington takeover” and its cousin “government takeover of health care.” They were used repeatedly even though the legislation that was enacted was based in large part on Republican proposals from earlier years.
While message-makers have plied their trade for decades to influence public policy and to help candidates win elections, I can remember a time not so long ago when bipartisanship, civil debate and compromise were possible not only in Washington but also in the state capitals.
As a young reporter, I covered politics in Tennessee when Republican Winfield Dunn was governor and Democrats controlled both the state Senate and House of Representatives. Dunn, and later Republican Gov. and now Sen. Lamar Alexander, who also served while Democrats controlled both houses, had to reach across the political aisle to get any of their policy initiatives enacted. They both succeeded by doing exactly that.
Later I covered Congress and the White House when Jimmy Carter was president, Democrat Tip O’Neill was House Speaker and Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee was Senate Minority Leader. Baker, who died last month, was a true moderate and a master at brokering compromises and getting legislation enacted. He was proud to be called “The Great Conciliator.”