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TAKING THE EZRA CHALLENGE! Fearlessly, we took The Klein Challenge concerning The Ben Nelson Language: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MARCH 9, 2010

Obsessing on the bald Communist: Groan. Time was, we rarely watched Glenn Beck at 5 PM (or during his 2 AM re-broadcast). But we’ve pretty much decided that he has to be watched pretty much every day of the week! The problem is the size of his audience, matched with his highly unusual content.

We don’t know how many people watched Beck’s show yesterday. But last Monday, a staggering 2.8 million people watched him at 5 PM alone (click here). By way of comparison, only 530,000 people were watching Hardball during that hour. Does anybody have any idea why they pay Matthews that five million bucks?

Beck draws an astoundingly large audience. His content tends to be staggering too. Last night, he mused again about the bald Communist, part of the steady fear-of-Communism diet he now provides.

What follows is one early excerpt, exactly as presented in the transcript posted at Nexis. To capture Beck’s highly unusual tone, you actually have to watch him:

BECK (3/8/10): Do you remember the bald communist? By the way, we have an amazing update on the story coming up in a few minutes. But do you remember what he said about being— about pushing the disenfranchised here in America? Listen carefully.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JED BRANDT, AMERICAN COMMUNIST: We have to help bring this government down. We have to help destroy this system. And that requires increasing the alienation that working class and oppressed people feel. The way change is going to happen in this country is through to the destruction of what we call the United States of America. I'm opposed to the system that we traditionally call imperialism and the idea that some people have rights and privileges that are not granted to all human beings.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BECK: OK. What did he say at the beginning? We have to push the disenfranchisement.

Well, what—is there a better way than the government coming in and saying, “We're in charge”? “It doesn't matter what you say. We're going to jam health care through. We're going to jam cap-and-trade.” How are you feeling? Disenfranchised? Wow!

The bald communist—wait until the update at the bottom of the hour—the bald communist said we have to push those things. Here's why we need to watch Iceland because if they go against the will of their people and they pay this money to England, England [sic] is going to fall. It will collapse economically. It will—Greece will collapse.

There's going to be really bad economic times coming for Europe and the rest of the world. Well, as dominoes start to fall, another is going to be forced to pay and then another country and then another country. And in the end, guess who all of the countries are pointing to? You, America. We're the home of the free market.

Americans told us capitalism would work and now look at the world, huh?

As Iceland goes, so goes the U.S.

In fairness, Beck had already discussed recent events in Iceland; his reference didn’t come out of the blue. But note what he said at the start of that segment. The bald Communist wants to overthrow the government by “push[ing] the disenfranchisement” (Beck’s paraphrase). And what better way to do that than by jamming health care through!

Beck goes on—and on, and on—about communism (and fascism) and the threat they provide to the U.S. He offers a deeply unusual narrative, except in the wider historical context of American fear-of-communism. As Beck noted last week, that bald Communist doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry! But so what? Beck has tape of what the bald Communist said—and Beck won’t let his words go.

Millions of people watch Beck every day, as he presents his highly unusual narratives. The mainstream press corps averts its gaze, much as it did when Jerry Falwell paraded about, suggesting to tons of suggestible folk that the Clintons were serial murderers.

Rush Limbaugh too.

Beck is introducing some very unusual narratives to millions of citizens. He does this every day. The bald Communist doesn’t have a Wikipedia page—yet. But he may be here to stay.

Concerning that update: Beck’s “update at the bottom of the hour” actually was a bit “amazing,” assuming it was accurate.

This afternoon: Eric Massa! For the full hour! Question: Will ratings climb?

Special report: A land where no one explains!

PART 1—TAKING THE EZRA CHALLENGE (permalink): Health reform may fail in the House in the next few weeks due to Ben Nelson’s language—the language in the Senate bill concerning abortion coverage. (Under current plans, the House will be asked to pass the Senate bill exactly as it is.)

But what does the Nelson language say? You’d think we might want to find out.

Alas! Within our devolving political culture, explanations are rare. What exactly did the Capps language say, the original language in the House bill concerning abortion coverage? What would the Stupak language do—the language which replaced the Capps language? In our experience, big news orgs have rarely tried to explain these matters, which are astoundingly basic.

Voters hear screeching claims from various sides. But where are the explanations?

What does the Nelson language say? On Friday, Ezra Klein issued a challenge (click here). “If you want to understand how abortion-coverage works in the Senate bill, read this,” he wrote at his excellent blog, linking to this Alec MacGillis news report from Friday’s Washington Post. “Still confused?” he continued. “Read this.” He linked to this Timothy Noah piece from Thursday’s Slate.

Result? When it came to The Nelson Language, we decided to take The Klein Challenge! In fact, we’d already read both pieces to which Ezra linked. But we went back and read them again.

Sorry—we’re still confused. But so it tends to go in our explanation-weak culture.

Let’s start with MacGillis’ explanation of how abortion coverage works in the Senate bill (under the Nelson language). Just to be clear: As MacGillis notes, we’re speaking here about people who would get federal subsidies to help them purchase coverage. These are people who aren’t getting coverage through their employer:

MACGILLIS (3/5/10): Underlying the controversy is the question of whether the Senate language—agreed to in a last-minute deal with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)—maintains the 33-year-old ban on federal funding for abortion. The bill would allow the procedure to be covered in plans offered on new “exchanges” in which people without employer-based coverage would buy insurance with the help of federal subsidies.

But it would require buyers to make two premium payments—one for most of their coverage and a second, far smaller one for abortion coverage. Everyone with such a plan—even men or older women—would need to make both payments.

Opponents have said that would not go far enough to keep federal money from subsidizing abortion. Democratic leaders disagree, saying it maintains the status quo.

Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates have grown increasingly convinced that the language would restrict the reach of abortion coverage nearly as much as the Stupak language in the House bill passed in December. That measure would have forced those who want abortion coverage to buy it in a rider.

Abortion rights groups and health-care analysts now are predicting that, under the Senate language, few plans would cover abortion because the requirement of two payments would be cumbersome for insurers and objectionable to customers.

According to MacGillis, people receiving federal subsidies could purchase plans which included abortion coverage. Even men and older women could do this, MacGillis says (without explaining why they would want to). But the Nelson language “would require buyers to make two premium payments,” he says; “one for most of their coverage and a second, far smaller one for abortion coverage.”

At this point, MacGillis goes on to do what reporters constantly do—he reports the various things people have said about this requirement. (That’s part of the story too, of course.) But his explanation is found in the highlighted passage above—and it fails to explain a point which strikes us as quite basic.

Here it is:

Under this plan, some people would buy insurance policies which include abortion coverage. Other people would buy policies which didn’t include such coverage. Here’s the question: When the former send in that second check, are they paying extra for abortion coverage, using their own money to buy that extra coverage? (In this case, they would in effect be buying abortion coverage “in a rider”—see paragraph 4 of the quoted excerpt—much as federal employees apparently have to do now.) Or would they be paying the same total amount as the people whose policies don’t include abortion coverage? We would assume that this might make a difference to people who oppose federal funding for abortion. In the one case, people would genuinely be buying abortion coverage with their own private funds—as Medicaid recipients currently have to do, as federal employees have to do. In the second case, a rather silly book-keeping trick would be involved, making it seem that no federal money was involved in the abortion coverage.

We don’t oppose federal funding ourselves, but tens of millions of voters do. To the extent that they want to “maintain the status quo,” we would assume that they would at least want to maintain the practice which has long been observed with federal employees—the practice of “buying a rider” out of a person’s own funds.

That said, which way does the Nelson language work? MacGillis doesn’t explain! After taking part one of Ezra’s challenge, we still didn’t know how this works.

(By the way: We’re giving our best explanation of current practices involving federal employees and Medicaid recipients. In our experience, major news orgs have made little attempt to explain these practices as part of this crucial discussion. You know the rules: Never explain!)

We felt that MacGillis let us down. And so, we clicked the Noah link, moving to an informative piece which still didn’t answer our question.

Even before we read it again, Noah’s article had (largely) convinced us of one point; it seems that Rep. Stupak has been wrong in some of his recent characterizations of the Nelson language. (We say “it seems,” because when we clicked to the actual legislative language to see what it actually said, the actual language was so complex that we realized we couldn’t riddle it out without devoting much more time to the project than we were prepared to spend.) That said, here’s the section where Noah explains the Nelson language (Noah offers this link to the Senate bill):

NOAH (3/4/10): Let's go to Page 2069 through Page 2078 of the Senate-passed bill. It says, “If a qualified plan provides [abortion] coverage...the issuer of the plan shall not use any amount attributable to [health reform's government-funding mechanisms] for purposes of paying for such services." (This is on Page 2072.) That seems pretty straightforward. No government funding for abortions (Except in the case of rape, incest, or a threat to the mother's life—the same exceptions granted under current law.) If a health insurer selling through the exchanges wishes to offer abortion coverage—the federal government may not require it to do so, and the state where the exchange is located may (the bill states) pass a law forbidding it to do so—then the insurer must collect from each enrollee (regardless of sex or age) a separate payment to cover abortion. The insurer must keep this pool of money separate to ensure it won't be commingled with so much as a nickel of government subsidy. (This is on Pages 2072-2074.)

Stupak is right that anyone who enrolls through the exchange in a health plan that covers abortions must pay a nominal sum (defined on Page 125 of the bill as not less than "$1 per enrollee, per month") into the specially segregated abortion fund. But Stupak is wrong to say this applies to "every enrollee." If an enrollee objects morally to spending one un-government-subsidized dollar to cover abortion, then he or she can simply choose a different health plan offered through the exchange, one that doesn't cover abortions. (Under the Senate bill, every insurance exchange must offer at least one abortion-free health plan.)

One dollar exceeds health insurers' actual cost in providing abortion coverage. In fact, it's entirely symbolic. The law stipulates that in calculating abortions' cost, insurers may consider how much they spend to finance abortions but not how much they save in foregone prenatal care, delivery, or postnatal care. (This is on Pages 2074-2075.) This is to keep insurers from pondering the gruesome reality—one they surely know already—that covering abortions actually saves them money. For health insurers, the true cost of abortion coverage is less than zero, because hospitals and doctors charge less to perform abortions than they do to tend pregnant women before, during, and after childbirth. (Ironically, only the Senate bill—not the House bill—provides some small counterweight to this calculus by increasing aid for adoption assistance.)

Noah quotes language which seems to say this: No government funding for abortions. (He calls the language “pretty straightforward”—after including two bracketed clarifications and one clarifying deletion.) But straightforward claims are easy to make; does the bill back up this straightforward claim? Just a guess: Those who oppose federal funding would want to know if that monthly payment is over and above the standard fee for some policy, or if it comes out of the standard fee. Are people paying extra for abortion coverage—paying extra, out of their own pockets? As best we understand it, that’s what federal employees have to do under current long-standing arrangements. (This strikes us as an amazingly stringent status quo.) That’s what Medicaid recipients have to do. (In many cases, they can’t afford to.) Which is it under the Nelson language? As best we could tell, Noah didn’t explain.

By the way: Would this distinction actually matter to opponents of federal funding? We aren’t sure about that either. We have seen very few attempts to explain this roiling dispute—a dispute which may sink health reform. But then, we live in a very strange culture—a culture where no one explains.

Tomorrow—Part 2: Mike Allen, when Conrad explained.