Inventing Controversy

There's nothing the media loves more than a good horse race. A little controversy - or a lot of it - sparks readers' interest and drives up sales. In the absence of actual controversy, though, the media sometimes has to invent some.

The debate over health care reform is a great example.

72% of Americans support a public health insurance option that competes with private insurers, according to a recent poll done by New York Times/CBS News. The poll was taken in mid-June and showed that people of all political stripes support health reform that, in the words of President Obama, "keep[s] insurance companies honest." Almost half of people identifying as Republicans supported the idea of a public health insurance option, as well as over 70% of independents and nearly 90% of Democrats.

Another recent survey of small business owners in Nebraska and Iowa found strikingly similar numbers. Done by the Small Business Majority, 69% of Iowa small business owners and 70% of Nebraska small business owners support the choice of a private or public health insurance plan.

I would hardly call this controversy.

It appears that the Democratic leadership in the Senate, where it's likely much of this debate will take place, is beginning to think that those numbers don't really constitute much controversy either. In an article from the newspaper Roll Call, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) that he should stop trying to put forward a bill that doesn't include a public health insurance option or that taxes health benefits, because doing so could lose the votes of 10 to 15 Senate Democrats.

So why, then, is there the appearance of controversy? Ezra Klein puts it well:

Every interview with members of the administration involved in health-care reform goes the same way: A reporter asks if they support the public plan. They do. Then the intrepid reporters asks if it's non-negotiable. And, like everything else in health-care reform "except for success," the public plan turns out to be negotiable. And that's the headline.

In the U.S. Senate, however, there seems to be actual controversy over whether the average American should have the choice of a public health insurance plan. When asked about the New York Times/CBS News poll showing such overwhelming support of a public health insurance option, one Senator quipped "Poll numbers, as you know, are here today and gone tomorrow. What's going to decide what passes here are votes [of Senators]."

One only needs to follow the money to see where the appearance of controversy in the Senate might be coming from - the $1.4 million dollars per day that the health care industry is spending on lobbying Congress. And it's not enough to have just anyone lobbying for the industry on Capitol Hill - the Washington Post reports:

The nation's largest insurers, hospitals and medical groups have hired more than 350 former government staff members and retired members of Congress in hopes of influencing their old bosses and colleagues, according to an analysis of lobbying disclosures and other records...Nearly half of the insiders previously worked for the key committees and lawmakers, including Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa)...At least 10 others have been members of Congress, such as former House majority leaders Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.)

When a legislator is hearing from scores more well-heeled and well-funded lobbyists than constituents, they may start to think that there is controversy where there largely isn't.

That's why your members of Congress need to hear from you. Right now.

You are the expert in the reasons why you need affordable health insurance, your community needs access to quality medical care, and why a public health insurance option creates competition that will help keep the health insurance companies from exploiting the elderly, the sick, and the self-employed.

Even if you've called before, even if your members of Congress have spoken in support of a public health insurance option before, they need to hear it again. We need to remind members of Congress what rural Americans need. Hearing from you helps them do the right thing and stand up against health industry lobbyists.

We may not have millions of dollars, but rural Americans know how to make a racket. Let's remind Congress who they represent and what we need: Health reform that works for all of us.

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