Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Media coverage of domestic policy has been palpably thin this year. No doubt the ongoing war in Iraq and the media preoccupation over the prison-abuse scandal causes editors to routinely spike domestic stories. “You can write the piece,” a Republican press aide recently told a reporter from a major national paper inquiring about a domestic issue, “but your paper will never print it.”

Last week, while the Bush campaign focused on the merits of the No Child Left Behind Act, the Kerry camp stumped on health care. Neither effort generated major news. “We have the president of the United States, riding around in a bus, talking about domestic policy, and no one’s paying attention,” a senior Bush official lamented. “And it’s only going to get worse as the transfer of power [in Iraq] gets closer in June.”

Capitol Hill is in the same boat. Lawmakers debate legislation each week, but nightly news coverage is sketchy, except about the war. Indeed, both the House and Senate are devoting the bulk of their time to the defense authorization bill this week. Ironically, even the recent “Cover the Uninsured Week,” imploring lawmakers to address this lack of insurance coverage for millions of Americans, received little “coverage.”

Is the ship of state stuck in the domestic doldrums? Yes and no. The ongoing conflict in Iraq makes this the first extended “war Congress” since the Nixon administration grappled with wrapping up Vietnam, complete with resolutions supporting the troops, urgent requests to fund the military and hearings about the prosecution of the war. Foreign and defense policy are sucking all the oxygen out of the Beltway bubble.

Lawmaking and communications are indeed different in a war Congress. Yet war is a partial explanation. Other factors — such as unified party control of the legislative and executive branch — influence the framing of domestic debates. Understanding these dynamics helps explain how Washington works during times of war ? and peace.

Republican control of Congress and the White House is one factor. The press is looking for big fights and just not finding any. Throughout George H.W. Bush’s administration, or the Clinton years, after the 1994 election, different parties controlled the Congress and the White House, setting the stage for big domestic-policy showdowns. Those same dynamics don’t exist today. Reporters are itching for a veto confrontation, for example, and are not going to get one, principally because the Republican leadership recognizes it’s a no-win situation and doesn’t let it happen.

Second, a closely divided Senate precludes passage of major policy changes in an election year. As a result, some of the debates concerning Social Security reform, covering the uninsured and lowering the costs of higher education have been shelved because both sides know the debate will only end in gridlock — hence all quiet on the policy front.

Finally, the dance of legislation requires leaders and followers. Major policies passed in the last three years — tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act and Medicare prescription drugs — were all White House initiatives. Congress reshaped each, but they were initially presidential proffers. The war requires so much attention. This year’s dance card of presidential domestic initiatives is skimpy; Congress can’t tango alone.

Lawmakers respond to the challenges of the war Congress in different ways. Democrats gripe that Congress is not in session enough. Legislative “activity” is the currency used to calculate their political net worth.

Republicans use a different metric. Competing for favorable stories with the Democrats with the inside-the-Beltway media is a bankrupt strategy. They focus more on getting members to their districts to highlight accomplishments.

“We want our members back home talking about how tax cuts created jobs and we demanded more educational accountability. Local news outlets actually report that kind of information,” a member of the Republican leadership told me. In this war Congress, many inside-the-Beltway reporters are more interested in a GOP member calling for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation than explaining the domestic agenda.

Vigorous domestic-policy debates are a casualty in this war Congress, but Iraq is only partly to blame. Explaining past victories to voters back home is a theater of operation unlikely to glean a lot of media attention, but it’s an important part of solidifying support for previous accomplishments. A post-election spring offensive is perhaps the best bet for the next phase of the conflict — when the “war correspondents” and lawmakers get back to domestic policy.

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