How did media cover GOP's 2003 use of reconciliation? They didn't

The only thing that's “unprecedented” about the use of reconciliation is the media's treatment of it, as a look back at coverage of President Bush's 2003 tax cuts passed via reconciliation demonstrates.

For weeks, the news media have been obsessed with the question of whether congressional Democrats would use a legislative mechanism known as “reconciliation” to pass changes to the health care reform legislation that passed the Senate in late December.

Unfortunately, that obsession has not actually resulted in reporters consistently getting the story right. Basic facts that should be central to the debate over the propriety of reconciliation have gotten lost in the mix. First, nobody is talking about passing the entire health care reform package via reconciliation -- the Senate has already passed its bill, and did so by overcoming a filibuster. Reconciliation would, instead, be used to pass a much smaller package of changes to that legislation via majority vote. Second, there is nothing hasty or debate-stifling about using reconciliation in this case: Congress has been considering health care reform for more than a year. Finally, reconciliation isn't all that unusual, having been used in connection with some of the highest-profile legislation in recent decades, including President Bush's tax cuts and the welfare reform bill President Clinton signed. Those are facts, and they are not in dispute.

And yet the media are referring to reconciliation as the "nuclear option" and portraying it as an obscure procedural gimmick being considered in an attempt to circumvent Senate rules and "ram" health care legislation through Congress. The conservative media are going so far as to claim that use of reconciliation would be "unprecedented."

Funny, I don't remember this level of media outrage in 2003, when Republicans passed President Bush's tax cut legislation via reconciliation.

But what's really striking about the media's approach to reconciliation is how much it differs from the way they treated the Republicans' use of reconciliation to pass President Bush's 2003 tax cut legislation. Only two Democrats voted for that bill -- one of whom, Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, doesn't really count, as he was a de facto Republican -- and Vice President Dick Cheney had to break a 50-50 tie. (Three Senate Republicans joined 46 Democrats and one independent in voting against the bill, which these days would be described as “bipartisan opposition.” )

And yet, in the weeks leading up to the reconciliation vote, the media didn't portray the Republicans as ramming tax cuts through Congress via unprecedented use of an obscure procedural gimmick to circumvent Senate rules. In fact, they didn't say much of anything at all about reconciliation.

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.

Even the insider publications that tend to cover legislative minutia paid little attention to the Republicans' use of reconciliation. National Journal made passing mentions on May 3 and May 10, 2003, neither of which so much as hinted that reconciliation was unusual, inappropriate, or controversial. And Roll Call mentioned reconciliation exactly once: a May 14, 2003, article about Republican angst over having committed a “procedural snafu” that delayed their use of reconciliation. The article quoted Grassley saying of Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin: “He could be technically right. ... But there's no need to have a strict interpretation of the rules like that.” And, Roll Call noted, “Some GOP aides even hinted that Frumin's position as parliamentarian could be in danger if he continued to make rulings that disadvantaged their political goals.”

You'd think that if reconciliation was really the controversial and heavy-handed tactic the media is currently portraying it as, there would have been a ton of media coverage of Senate Republican aides suggesting the parliamentarian would be fired if he didn't let the GOP handle reconciliation however they wanted. Particularly in light of the fact that Frumin was elevated to his post by the Senate Republican leadership in 2001 -- after they fired his predecessor for issuing rulings that complicated their efforts to use reconciliation for that year's round of tax cuts.

But there wasn't even a blip -- not a single mention in The New York Times, The Washington Post, or on ABC, CBS, NBC, or CNN. Well, that's not quite true: The Times did mention GOP unhappiness with Frumin on May 31, 2003, -- more than a week after the reconciliation vote took place.

Even if you look at the five months preceding the May 23, 2003, reconciliation vote, you find very little major media attention paid to the process. And when reconciliation was mentioned, it was only in passing, without any indication it was controversial. Like the March 14, 2003, Washington Post article that simply stated, “Parliamentary -- or 'reconciliation' -- language in both the Senate and House budget resolutions ... would ensure that a $ 726 billion tax package would need only 51 votes for Senate passage rather than the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster blocking a floor vote.” Or Tim Russert's matter-of-fact statement on January 7, 2003: "[T]he Republicans are going to use a technique called reconciliation. It's a budget process where they would in effect take away the right of the Democrats to filibuster, which means you would only need 51 votes to pass this legislation." And that's about it: The Times, Post, the three broadcast networks and CNN combined for fewer than a half-dozen other mentions of the process over the course of five months, none of which portrayed it as controversial.

The current hyperventilation about the use of reconciliation is completely inconsistent with the way the media covered reconciliation in 2003. Back then, they didn't treat reconciliation as an unusual or controversial tactic -- in fact, they barely noticed it, even when Republicans made noises about firing the parliamentarian they elevated when they fired the previous parliamentarian.

Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.