Stenography-as-reporting tends to get a bad name because it allows politicians to say false or misleading things without being held accountable. But an episode over the weekend highlighted a different pitfall to the practice: by focusing only on what politicians say, journalists can obscure what they actually mean.

At issue were comments made Sunday by Kent Conrad on the TV show Face the Nation about the use of a parliamentary maneuver known as “reconciliation” to pass health care reform. As plenty of media reports have noted, reconciliation—which allows senators to bypass the filibuster threat and proceed with a simple majority, but can only be used on matters directly affecting the federal budget—is being considered by the Democratic leadership, which has lost its sixty-vote supermajority in the Senate. Conrad is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, so it made sense for FTN host Bob Schieffer to ask him about the approach. Conrad replied:

Bob, let’s just understand the question of reconciliation. I have said all year as chairman of the Budget Committee, reconciliation cannot be used to pass comprehensive health care reform. It won’t work. It won’t work because it was never designed for that kind of significant legislation. It was designed for deficit reduction.

So, let’s be clear. On the major Medicare or health care reform legislation, that can’t move to reconciliation. The role for reconciliation would be very limited. It would be on sidecar issues designed to improve what passed the Senate and what would have to pass the House for health care reform to move forward.


So, using reconciliation would not be for the main package at all. It would be for certain sidecar issues like how much does the federal government put up to pay for the Medicaid expansion? What is done to improve the affordability of the package that’s come out of the Senate?

Schieffer followed up, noting that just that morning a White House aide had called for an “up-or-down vote”—meaning, reconciliation—on health care reform. Conrad responded:

I’d say this to you, Bob. I have said all year, I am chairman of the committee in the Senate. I think I understand how reconciliation works and how it can’t work. The major package of health care reform cannot move through the reconciliation process. It will not work.

“The major package of health care reform cannot move through the reconciliation  the process. It will not work.” That sounds like a pretty clear repudiation of reconciliation from a key Democrat. That, indeed, is the gist of a Politico blog post that went up within minutes of the remarks being made (“Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) threw cold water on the idea of using the reconciliation process Sunday…”) and was soon linked by other widely-read blogs. It was an impression reinforced by Schieffer himself on air, and by portions of Face the Nation’s own story about the show, which included this passage:

Conrad said that owing to the Byrd rule, which states that non-budgetary sections of a bill must be removed before consideration, major portions of the legislation would need to be jettisoned. “That would eliminate all the delivery system reform, all the insurance market reform, all of those things the experts tell us are really the most important parts of this bill.

For a political news consumer who’d been taught by the media over the past month that reconciliation=comprehensive reform, all this might have sounded a lot like a death knell for the package. The problem, as other writers have noted, is that while those accounts quote Conrad accurately, they don’t at all capture the meaning of what he said.

Whether “comprehensive health care reform” can be passed through reconciliation is at the moment an academic debate, because both houses of Congress have already passed comprehensive reform. The plan of the Democratic leadership now is to have the House pass the Senate bill, then to have both houses pass amendments to the package which, due to their budget-related nature, could clear the Senate via reconciliation. It’s not clear whether this will work—the hold-up is in the House, which doesn’t trust the Senate and would have to swallow some provisions its members don’t care for—but that’s the plan. It’s a plan that Conrad himself tentatively endorsed more than five weeks ago. It’s a plan that’s entirely consistent with his remarks on Sunday. And it’s a plan that he outlined again Monday while bashing the media for its reporting on reconciliation.

To be fair to the reporters who weren’t clear on this point, Conrad never quite clearly articulated this plan on FTN—whether because he’s a bad communicator, or because he was deliberately concealing something, or because he’s fixated on an intra-Democratic dispute about correct reconciliation procedure, it’s hard to say. And he did say, repeatedly, that reconciliation “won’t work.”

But that’s where the stenography point comes in. It would be wonderful if politicians were always clear and straightforward in their public comments. But they’re not, and that’s why just “reporting what they said” doesn’t always do the job. This was a case where readers, and viewers, needed journalists to do the work not just of reporting what Conrad said, but of explaining, correctly, what it meant.

Addendum: It’s ironic that a Politico blog post was at the center of the confusion here. For much of Monday, that post was featured with a link on the site’s home page that appeared directly under a larger link to health care reporter Carrie Budoff Brown’s latest story. Near its conclusion, that story included this paragraph:

But Democrats are not doing exactly what Byrd decried [in using reconciliation to advance major legislation]. Democrats already passed the comprehensive reform bill through the House and the Senate. They are now looking to make fixes to the bill by packaging changes in a reconciliation measure — a distinction that becomes lost in the debate.


Indeed.

Greg Marx is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.