As the fates would have it, a Politburo-style maneuver failed.
There’s a rude old joke about the disgruntled office worker complaining that he feels like a mushroom. “My bosses usually leave me in the dark, and then they feed me a bunch of sh-t.”
No one likes to be kept out of the loop while consequential decisions that will affect everyone are being made. The rueful remark is a reminder of why the attempt by the Senate leadership to draft health care legislation in secret was so troubling and—in a basic sense—un-American. Healthcare is approaching 20% of the entire American economy. Just thirteen Republican Senators—incredibly, without even one woman among them—drafted the legislation (the misnamed “Better Care Reconciliation Act”) and then sprang it on the rest of us in what was supposed to be an early vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was clearly hoping that the secrecy that shut out the media and most members of his own conference would make passage easier. The press would be blindsided. There would be little time for anyone to read the bill or debate it. There would be no committee mark-ups or hearings, no expert or stakeholder testimony. He knew that some legislators will put party first and sometimes vote on bills they do not understand. As the fates would have it, a Politburo-style maneuver failed.
Some members of the Senate GOP complained of being blindsided. A few others didn’t like the short timetable. So McConnell had no choice but to postpone the vote until after the July 4 break.
There is reason to take heart in the old and honorable American expectation that representatives at all levels of government should do their work with the lights on and the doors open.
So the bill has been dragged into the light where it belongs. Legislating is meant to luxuriate in communication, doubly so in an open society. Now the press is reporting and assessing. The public is weighing in. And interested Americans can consider the consequences of the planned rollbacks and tax breaks that made the proposed legislation so regressive. For the moment, the legislative process has defaulted to a norm of openness and public discussion. We get to actually see the car before we buy it.
There is reason to take heart in the old and honorable American expectation that representatives at all levels of government should do their work with the lights on and the doors open. States have “sunshine laws” that require agencies to publicize their decision-making processes. We have a Freedom of Information Act that sometimes allows close inspection of bureaucratic paper trails. We have a non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that will provide an effects-oriented report. And, of course, we rightly celebrate a First Amendment that gives reporters and citizens the right to ask tough questions to their representatives and register complaints.
It is true that most legislation in the United States is written by small committees of legislators, often with lobbyists submitting drafts as well. And it is equally true that most Americans are not interested or too distracted to notice consequential law-making that will change their lives. But the process is grievously sabotaged if legislators who have pledged to uphold the Constitution usurp its intent by working in secret. Hearings are usually the open window in the process. When even those are curtailed we have good reason to question the honor of the leaders involved.
The eye has now fully extended its dominance over the ear, occasionally with interesting results.
The idea that some people are “visual learners” is an old one. But it has special relevance in our age where more media content comes to us in packages meant to be seen as much as read. What this means in its simplest form is that to see is to know. We understand something as meaningful if it comes to us as an image or in a visual frame. For example, there is new research that indicates that anti-smoking warnings on cigarette packages that include graphic pictures slightly increases the willingness of smokers to quit.
There are obvious and sometimes crippling disadvantages to the idea visual knowledge. Pictures are usually poor at capturing ideas: one reason that local television news often lives up to the dismissive phrase of a “vast wasteland.” “If it bleeds it leads” is the old phrase that suggests the narrow focus. But for the moment let’s be more positive.
Appropriation of a visual meme can equal stealing and co-opting a sacred text.
Television as a pervasive daily presence has certainly played its part in making us ocular-centric. This shift dates from the 1950s, when it became a household necessity. The new screen in the living room meant that family life would be changed forever. A second milestone in moving toward the visual was the consequential decision by Apple’s Steve Jobs to borrow (steal?) a Xerox research lab’s idea to use graphical interfaces for computers: what we know as the colorful icons and “windows” that present web content with store-window vividness. Add in video recording, DVD’s and easy-to-use cameras, and the transition to visual formatting of content was complete. Especially for younger Americans the eye has fully extended its dominance over the ear, to the extent that people will sometimes accept bad sound even while they watch super high definition video images. It’s no surprise that the recent Pepsi ad campaign trading on the images of protest looked bad to so many people. Appropriation of a visual meme can equal stealing and co-opting a sacred text.
The best that can be said for visual acuity is that the person with it is sometimes able to see what others of us might miss. That is surely the case with many readers of a recentNew York Times column where Jill Filipovic (age 33) asked us to take a closer look at a recent White House photo of a meeting of the “Freedom Caucus” members of the House of Representatives. Vice President Pence posted the photo (above), proudly noting that deliberations were underway to replace the Affordable Care Act. What Pence saw as a fitting representation of orderly deliberation Filipovic understood as a representation of unabashed sexism.
For liberals, the photo seemed like an inadvertent insight into the current Republican psyche: Powerful men plotting to leave vulnerable women up a creek, so ensconced in their misogynistic world that they don't even notice the bad optics (not to mention the irony of the "pro-life" party making it harder for women to afford to have babies).
Filipovic went on to argue that that this male power play and its image were intentional, and evidence of a powerful misogynistic streak. She’s right about the first point; I’m not so sure about the second. It credits the White House with more strategic thinking than they are probably due. But either way we can only applaud her ability to see what some of us otherwise might not have noticed. White and well-heeled men have been occupying dominant decision-making roles for so long, we may miss how unrepresentative they now seem in comparison to our much more diverse nation. That the decision-makersmight not have noticed makes their hypocrisy even worse.