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For The Record

Tom PattonNobody’s mind is going to be changed, and yet, it all has to be read into the record.

Watching the health care debate Sunday night on C-SPAN, I’m reminded how much of the debate is done for the cameras and the audience, and how little is done to try to influence the opinions of others in the body.

I worked for The Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network for several years a long time ago in a galaxy far away. It was in the days of Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution that swept through congress in the mid-90’s, but it was also the beginning of the bitter partisanship that has only intensified in the intervening 15 years.

I watched debate after debate after debate … it was, after all, my job to do so, trying to pick out the salient bits for a show I was producing called “C-SPAN’s Weekly Radio Journal.” I had just about forgotten how repetitive it all has become.

As you watch the debate, it becomes apparent that nobody who takes the well of the House or who stand among the seats when they are yielded a minute or so is attempting to change the minds of the persons “on the other side if the aisle.” What was heard, with few exceptions, was a reiteration of the talking points that have come for months from both sides of the debate. From the Democrats, an historic bill that will ensure all Americans are covered, that no one’s pre-existing condition will deny them insurance coverage, that it reduces the deficit, and that insurance companies will be required to spend 80 to 85 cents of every premium dollar collected on actual health care. From the Republicans, that it will bankrupt the system, that it eviscerates Medicare, that it was written by the insurance industry, that it amounts to socialism.

I have several issues with the health care bill, most notably that it mandates that people buy coverage, on risk of penalty, and that it will be administered by no less compassionate agency than the IRS. “The Hill” reported Sunday that if this bill passes, the IRS will need an additional $10 billion and 17,000 new employees to administer the program, and collect the penalties.

And, the bill represents an unfunded mandate for states, which will be required to pay more in their Medicaid programs. In Florida, where the state legislature is wrestling with a budget gap of more than $3 billion, the last thing we need is another Washington mandate that will make things more difficult for lawmakers in many states to balance their budgets as are mandated by their constitutions.

But on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives Sunday night, the members wrote their speeches from their talking points, and paraded a minute at a time to the well to make their speeches, every one now a part of the congressional record, and every member asks for “unanimous consent to revise and extend my remarks.”
There is a method to the madness, of course. The debate is not so much done for other members of the House as it is for the television audience. The members are on the record as either supporting or opposing the bill, apparently based largely on whether they have a “D” or an “R” beside their names. I don’t recall, but I’m sure that if it’s happened I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that either party had someone from the other side of the aisle speak in favor of their party’s position. But the members can send out a news release about how they “fought” for the position of their party.

It’s a well-known tenant of advertising that repetition is necessary for a message to be heard. In a several-hour debate over the health care bill, the same arguments were made time after time, back and forth across the aisle, worded as if they were actually trying to change the minds of those who will actually vote. But in reality, it’s for the audience … either watching live, in soundbites on the news, or reading the Congressional Record.

Cynical? Maybe. But Sunday night is the first debate of any length I’ve watched on C-SPAN since I left the network over 10 years ago. And while SOME of the names have changed, the song remains the same.

Honestly, I really don’t thing that’s a bad thing. Members need to be on the record. Without it, there can be no accountability. But they could leave off the bit at the end about “I urge my colleagues to vote yes/no on this historic/flawed bill.”

I don’t think they’re changing any minds. It’s all for the record.

2 Responses »

  1. Unfortunately, Tom, you are 100% correct.

    Our elected representatives live and die by the sound bite and video clip. It's all geared toward their re-election, their constituency be damned.

  2. Thanks for the historic perspective.

    I see this in local government chambers...for people who enjoy being on TV...and have often thought TV coverage attracted people who enjoy the moment of fame and discouraged earnest debate of real issues by the elected board.