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Rhetoric has Consequences



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Newly installed Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner has decided to begin his tenure and the period of a new GOP majority in the House by pressing ahead with a vote to repeal the nation’s recent health care reform on the basis that the law “kills jobs,” and because in the recent campaign his party had promised the American people it would take such action. Laying aside the merits of these claims and the issue of whether a majority of Americans favors repeal (in fact, about 70% do not according to recent national polls), and the fact that successful House action will result in no change, as the Democratically controlled Senate has already vowed not to take up any such bill, the Speaker’s choice and his rhetoric concerning it have raised another important question. When reporters asked Boehner how a repeal could save money when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had released an analysis stating repeal would cost the Treasury $23 billion over ten years, Boehner did not argue the merits of that office’s analysis. Instead, he suggested the CBO was entitled to its “opinion” and he had a rather different one.

Whatever his arguments for repeal, and however genuine or contrived his stance may be, this rhetoric does nothing to educate voters on the concerns at play, or offer a rationale for Boehner’s perspective. Boehner’s decision not to offer reasons for his dismissal of the CBO analysis has two damaging consequences for democratic dialogue and deliberation. The first arises from his delegitimation of a leading arm of Congress, the Congressional Budget Office. The second consequence is reduced potential for democratic deliberation in national public policy-making.

Congress established the Congressional Budget Office in 1974 as part of a broader reform to equip the legislature with capacity to sort through the President’s budget and presidential rhetoric concerning it, and to ascertain the likely fiscal impacts of specific policy choices. By all accounts the Office has undertaken that responsibility with impeccable nonpartisanship and high professional standards in the ensuing decades. Its work has long drawn praise from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress as well as from congressional and budget scholars.

Indeed, in practice CBO has provided Congress the nonpartisan institutional wherewithal to check the resource allocation claims of the executive branch and of its own members. Nonetheless, the new Speaker, while presumably very much aware of these key CBO roles and reputation, chose to argue the Office had offered an “opinion” rather than an analysis and he had another, as if that settled the matter. Boehner rhetorically dismissed the agency and its work by relegating it to the status of a source of opinion. E. B. White famously warned of the implications of this sort of rhetoric: “Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts.” Boehner’s rhetoric undermined not only the role of the CBO in providing dispassionate policy analysis, but also any effort to provide deliberative claims by relabeling such as “opinion.” While this may allow the leader to escape the necessity to provide reasons for his or her views, and it may be an artful way to end bothersome questions about one’s stance, it nonetheless undercuts the potential for democratic dialogue. In this case, it goes further to diminish a key Congressional office whose work has been used to conduct a more informed conversation concerning policy alternatives. If such capacity is not valued and protected by our nation’s principal political leaders, it is difficult to discern how we (citizens and leaders collectively) can conduct anything like an informed discussion of policy issues. Shall we instead simply recur to rule by expressed fiat? Or perhaps to rule by the “opinions” of those in power, with no dialogue or regard for minority or competing views? The corrosive dangers of this sort of rhetorical turn for democracy, should it become commonplace, are obvious. Speaker Boehner knows better and should make it a point at an early opportunity to offer arguments for his claims and to laud the CBO for its nonpartisan analyses, and engage those reports with arguments when he disagrees with them. The possibility of democratic deliberation demands no less.

Publication Date

January 9, 2011