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INFORMATION NO LONGER EXISTS! We were surprised by a factual claim about the Senate abortion provision: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MARCH 15, 2010

Last call on a fascinating topic: We hope we won’t visit this topic again. But we were fascinated by a statement from Friday’s Maddow program.

Rachel Maddow was speaking with Annabel Park, founder of the “Coffee Party” movement. Park wants to create a more civil discourse. Maddow explained why that’s an impossible dream, given the way some people are—people like kooky Ben Nelson:

PARK (3/12/10): I would say there are three things about the Coffee Party. There’s a need for civility. There’s a need for cooperation in government. And it’s also about affirming the American community, that we don’t have to be so divided over our differences of opinion.

MADDOW: Let me give you a case study. I think this is a fascinating idea. So many people asked me what I think about it and what they ought to think about it. And I think people are excited by this.

But let me give you a case study. I did an interview a year ago with Sen. Ben Nelson about the stimulus. And Sen. Nelson argued to me that we needed the stimulus to be as efficient and effective as possible.

And he said school construction was one of the single, most purely efficient economically stimulative things that you could ever do. He also then said he wanted less school construction in the stimulus bill. I was flabbergasted.

And to me, the moral of the story was that sort of meeting Ben Nelson in the middle and cooperating with him on that one would be a bad thing to do because his argument was wrong. It wasn’t even internally consistent.

Is it or would it be un-Coffee Party-ish to call Ben Nelson wrong on that, to say, "No, you can`t participate in these talks. We’re not meeting you halfway. You don’t make sense?”

Poor Rachel! She tries so hard to be civil herself! But it’s very hard to do with people like Nelson around!

Rachel described an interview with Nelson about the 2009 stimulus package. In the interview, Nelson “said school construction was one of the single, most purely efficient economically stimulative things that you could ever do,” Maddow told Park. But omigod! “He also then said he wanted less school construction in the stimulus bill.” Rachel was flabbergasted!

So were we, when we looked at the transcript of Maddow’s interview with Nelson. But then, we’re often flabbergasted when we fact-check this cable talker’s claims about things other people have said.

The interview in question occurred on February 9, 2009. Maddow raised the question of school construction three times, making a perfectly decent point: $15 billion in school construction had been removed from the stimulus bill, reducing the amount of stimulus included in the overall package. But Nelson never said anything dimly like the statement Maddow put in his mouth Friday night. If you doubt that, here’s the transcript. Go ahead—read the whole thing. (The interview with Nelson is about half-way in.)

We don’t think we’ve ever seen anyone who misstates the truth in such matters to quite the extent Maddow does. On Friday, she did help us enjoy a good mordant chuckle. We can’t have civil discussion due to people like Nelson, she complained. To prove her point, she baldly misstated what Nelson had actually said.

By the way, this is the way Maddow’s conversation with Nelson ended last year. Earlier, Nelson had claimed that the school construction money had to be cut to win Republican votes for the package. (Without those votes it couldn’t have passed, since Democrats had only 58 votes at the time. He also said he agreed with some of their views on the school construction matter.) In closing, he alluded to this earlier claim—and Maddow said she understood:

NELSON (2/9/09): We had 61 votes today. I think we’ll have 61 votes tomorrow. If we hadn’t put this package together, we wouldn’t be voting on this tomorrow, I can assure you. And the president wants it timely, targeted and temporary. And that is exactly what we are attempts to do here.

MADDOW: Sen. Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska. I feel like I understand the political argument. I don’t agree with you all on the policy, but I get you did it for political reasons. And I really appreciate you coming on this show to talk about it tonight, particularly knowing that I disagree.

NELSON: Thank you.

MADDOW: Thank you, sir.

NELSON: Thank you.

Maddow understood the political argument. (They had to drop the construction funding to win those Republican votes.) She appreciated Nelson coming on the show to talk, even though he knew she disagreed with him on the policy.

Nelson had been civil! Thirteen months later, Maddow was baldly misstating what Nelson had said—and she was telling Park that we can’t have civil discourse with people as goofy as Nelson.

We’ve never seen anyone quite like this. Should progressives really let GE select our leaders for us?

INFORMATION NO LONGER EXISTS (permalink): Here at THE HOWLER, we had mixed reactions to this morning’s New York Times editorial about abortion coverage in the Senate health bill.

On the one hand, we share the editors’ concern that “a handful of House Democrats who oppose abortion” may end up defeating the bill. (The editors still think that “perhaps a dozen House Democrats who voted for the House version” may end up switching their votes over the abortion coverage issue.) On the other hand, we tend to be annoyed at the type of high-blown talk with which the editors open their piece:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (3/15/10): After a year of national debate, a handful of House Democrats who oppose abortion may be the ones to decide whether health care reform goes forward or not.

We strongly support a woman's right to choose and are disturbed by the restrictions in both the House and Senate bills on a woman's ability to buy insurance that covers abortions. But the opportunity to provide coverage for 30 million of the uninsured—and more security for all Americans—is too important to miss.

The editors “strongly support a woman's right to choose.” They fail to mention that about half those 30 million people who will gain health coverage under the bill will gain it through enrollment in Medicaid, which doesn’t allow abortion coverage at all. (Except in the seventeen states which provide such coverage out of state funds.) Medicaid recipients are lower-income people, as compared to the people who will get subsidies under this bill. Often, they simply can’t afford to pay for an abortion, even though a first-term abortion is not an expensive procedure. We’ve been puzzled and unimpressed in the past six months as fiery liberals who “strongly support a woman’s right to choose” thunder about the rights of middle-lass people who will get federal subsidies, but fail to mention why they never say boo about Medicaid restrictions.

They strongly support the right to choose? Or do they support that right for middle-class women, when it gives them a chance to posture?

In today’s editorial, the editors thunder, clatter and wail, repeating some of the least likely claims made by those who oppose the Senate restrictions. On the third hand, the editors offer the following account of the Senate provision. Some of this seemed new to us:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, says that unless the Senate's anti-abortion provisions are strengthened, perhaps a dozen House Democrats who voted for the House version won't vote for the Senate's bill. Before they push their party's signature domestic issue over a cliff they need to recognize how incredibly restrictive the Senate's provisions already are.

Most of these restrictions would apply to insurance policies sold on new exchanges where individuals and small businesses could choose from an array of private plans. The Senate bill would allow any state to ban insurers on the state's exchanges from offering policies that cover abortion. In states that don't impose that ban, the exchanges would be required to offer at least one policy that excludes abortion coverage. They would not be required to offer policies that cover abortions.

The Senate bill also bans the use of federal subsidies to pay for abortion services. And it would set up a hugely complicated scheme to make sure that happens.

All people who buy a policy that covers abortions—not just those receiving tax credits to help buy insurance—would have to divide their premium payment in two: a small part (at least $1 a month) to cover the plan's projected cost of paying for abortions and a much bigger payment for the rest of the premium. The insurers would have to keep two separate accounts for the subsidized group, one to pay for abortions and one for all other care. It would be so cumbersome that it would likely discourage insurers from offering plans that cover abortion.

Those restrictions are a blatant government interference in a serious health care decision that should be made by a woman and her doctor. But for some House members they are still not enough.

Sorry. We just don’t think it’s “hugely complicated” to write, or receive, two checks, not one. We’re disinclined to credit claims made by people who thunder so loudly about such minor provisions. (This is a good way to make sure that others won’t take you seriously.) That said, we were surprised by the passage we have highlighted above. Under the Senate bill, states could “ban insurers on the state's exchanges from offering policies that cover abortion?” In other states, insurance companies were required to offer a plan which excludes abortion coverage—not so for a plan which includes it?

We weren’t sure we had seen those provisions discussed before. We decided to make a search of the New York Times’ news coverage of the Senate provision.

Does information exist in our culture? Does it even remain as a concept? We’ll have to admit, we were a bit surprised by what we found in our search.

It’s always dangerous to make claims about what hasn’t appeared in a newspaper. In any search, some reports can be missed. It’s safe to say that X, Y or Z has appeared. It’s tricky to say that X, Y or Z hasn’t appeared.

That qualification offered, we found amazingly little attempt to provide news coverage of this Senate provision. In theory, everyone agrees that health reform could fail due to the ongoing dispute about the Senate abortion language. That said:

Can you find a stand-alone news report in the Times explaining the Senate abortion provision? It seems strange, but we had to go all the way back to December to find such a report. And yes, we found two short descriptions of the matter we have highlighted above. This is Robert Pear, five days before Christmas, as the Senate bill neared passage:

PEAR (12/20/09): The [Senate] legislation also includes a proposal that would limit insurance coverage of abortion. The provision, which was the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place, was negotiated by the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, to win the support of Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, who is an opponent of abortion.

Under the agreement, states could choose to prohibit abortion coverage in the insurance markets, or exchanges, where most health plans would be sold.

But if a health plan did cover the procedure, subscribers would have to make two separate monthly premium payments: one for all insurance coverage except abortion and one for abortion coverage.

On December 26, David Kirkpatrick reported this same provision: “The Senate bill, approved Thursday morning, allows any state to bar the use of federal subsidies for insurance plans that cover abortion and requires insurers in other states to divide subsidy money into separate accounts so that only dollars from private premiums would be used to pay for abortions.” But as best we could tell, that was the last time the Times reported this part of the Senate bill. Needless to say, there has been no reported discussion of how this provision would work in actual practice. By the way: Does this Senate provision differ from the Stupak language in the House bill, or from the original Capps language? Three days before Christmas, Alec MacGillis reported this part of the Senate bill in the Post, but he added a point:

MACGILLIS (12/22/09): The long-standing ban on federal funding for abortion has complicated congressional Democrats' health-care legislation. Medicaid bars federal funding for abortion, but 17 states and the District allow the procedure for female Medicaid enrollees paid out of their own funds. It is harder to reach middle ground in the bill before Congress, which would provide federal subsidies to millions of people to buy private health insurance plans on a new marketplace, or "exchange." The deal reached by Nelson and other Democrats over the weekend would allow those people to purchase insurance plans with abortion coverage. But they would have to write two separate premium checks—one to cover the bulk of their plan and the other to cover the sliver for abortion coverage, probably a dollar or so per month.

States could also decree that no plans including abortion coverage be provided on the exchange in their state. As it stands, five states already have some sort of ban on abortion coverage.

That makes it sound like five states already have bans under state law which would eliminate abortion coverage in the exchanges. Would those bans also have eliminated such coverage under the Capps or Stupak provisions?

Our point about this is simple: Our two biggest newspapers have made virtually no attempt to explain how this Senate provision would work. Most likely, we read those fleeting reports at Christmas-time, although it was a time when we were on the move. But even in recent weeks, there has been virtually no attempt tin the Post or the Times to examine the way the Senate provision would work. On March 5, the Post did offer this front-page, stand-alone report, in which MacGillis described the abortion provisions in the Senate bill. But alas! Go ahead and read it! The fact that “states could decree that no plans including abortion coverage be provided on the exchange in their state” wasn’t mentioned this time.

How would this provision work? Your big newspapers haven’t tried to explain! Your culture is very long on thunder—and very short on explanation. Very few things ever get explained, though we do hear lots of loud noises.

By the way, one last time: Why aren’t the fiery editors upset about the millions of people who will get added to the Medicaid roles? They won’t be getting abortion coverage—and many of them will be too poor to pay for the procedure. Why don’t the editors ever thunder for them? Today, the editors are upset at the thought of middle-class women being forced to write two separate checks. How about the rather tougher circumstances faced by low-income women?

We understand that the Medicaid precedent is quite clear, while there is no real precedent for subsidized coverage. But how strongly do the editors really feel if this problem never gets discussed?