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For US Media, Massive Military Budgets Are “Must Pass” While Modest Climate Provisions Are “Progressive Wish List”
A side-by-side comparison of two bill reveals the unchecked ideological assumptions underpinning US press coverage of spending priorities.
Some legislation is seen as essential and nonnegotiable, axiomatic, post-ideological. Like wheels on a car, its necessity is beyond debate. The mere thought of it not passing? Unthinkable. Other legislation is viewed as ideological preference—fine in theory, but ultimately superfluous, like power windows or XM radio: not elemental or crucial, but it would be sort of nice to have. A side-by-side comparison of media coverage of this past January’s National Defense Authorization (NDAA) bill and this week’s gutting of the Build Back Better bill’s already modest climate provisions provides a useful window into how U.S. media internalizes and smuggles in massive ideological assumptions about what is essential and what is whimsical, far-left ideological ornamentation.
One rhetorical thingamajig our media and think tank class invented during the Bush years was this idea of “must pass” legislation, almost always in reference to funding our war and security state. In the past 20 years, media outlets have begun to use the label, without irony quotes, to refer exclusively to a war budgets. Just a sampling from the past 18 months shows it’s exclusively used to push the essential nature of the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the Pentagon:
The official Senate glossary of terms used to define a “must pass bill” as “a vitally important measure that Congress must enact, such as annual money bills to fund operations of the government. Because of their must-pass quality, these measures often attract ‘riders’ (unrelated policy provisos).” (This definition has since been removed from the recent update of terms by the Senate for unknown reasons). While the term is not, by definition, specific to military funding, as a matter of course this is how it is used in almost every instance, and is the only context it’s been used in the past 8 years.
The first time the New York Times used the term in straight reporting without quotes was in April 1998, when funding for military operations in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf was presented as “must pass”:
Senate supporters of the financing tried to improve the measure's prospects last month by attaching it to a must-pass bill to pay for military operations in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf, and disaster relief for storm-stricken Americans.
A brief write-up from November 1999 referred to extending tax cuts as “must pass”:
Negotiations between Congressional tax writers and the Treasury Department were completed tonight. The chicken waste, rum and school construction measures will be added to a must-pass bill to extend popular tax breaks that have expired.
After the bipartisan consensus around endless military spending began to falter, the term died for a while. (After all, there is no need to insist something is a “must” if it’s not even up for debate.) The next time the phrase “must pass bill” was used by the New York Times is when the editorial board wrote in 2005:
As 11th-hour ploys go in Congress, the Republican leadership lowered the bar into the permafrost by ignoring rules and slapping Alaskan oil drilling onto a must-pass bill to pay for the Iraq war.
From its conception, the term was used almost exclusively for mindlessly funding and authorizing the machinery of U.S. militarism. And the one exception was for tax cuts for the rich. It wasn’t until a literal “government shutdown” in 2013 that the New York Times referred to the normal funding of liberal government overall as “must pass” since, in this case, it meant the total breakdown of society.
But the vast bulk of media examples only refer to military spending as “must pass.” Much like how CNN’s Jake Tapper, in his 20 year career that rose alongside the post-9/11 U.S. wars, expressed Grave Concern for Deficits throughout the years—but never once asked “how will you pay” for the 14 trillion the U.S. spends on occupying, bombing, patrolling, training, and intervening in dozens of countries—the ideological work of the term “must pass” is done with zero effort: It’s simply asserted, taken for granted like gravity or the tides, that funding our bloated security state is must pass.
Contrast this with the unceremonious gutting of the already inadequate and modest climate provisions in the Reconciliation Bill. These measures—as well as other life-saving anti-poverty measures—were never referred to as “must pass,” despite the fact that if there is one policy measure that is definitionally a must pass it’s climate legislation.
As the August IPCC report makes clear, while a certain amount of climate change is already locked in, dramatic global efforts to stop fossil fuel extraction can still stave off the worst-case scenarios. Failure to do so would be catastrophic. Anything above a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius would unleash severe and more frequent mega storms and droughts, and lead to death and hunger on a stunning scale. The United States has a huge role to play in preventing the worst outcomes, as the world’s top emitter per capita of greenhouse gasses, not to mention its mammoth historical emissions. According to a new report from the the U.N. Environment Program, the world is “on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century. That is well above the goals of the Paris climate agreement and would lead to catastrophic changes in the Earth’s climate.” To say that dramatic climate action is urgent is an understatement: All of human society hangs in the balance.
It’s notable then that U.S. media not only never implied that these modest climate provisions included in the Build Back Better agenda were “must pass,” but constantly treated these essential (and, again, already modest) steps as elective or ideological whimsy, simply one part of a left-wing “wish list.” From just this past month:
Sept 27 2021, NPR: “Democrats decided they'd put their pent-up wish list of things they think the country needs into this big reconciliation bill.”
Sept 30 2021, AP: “Pelosi began debate this week on the infrastructure bill, which tops their wish list.”
Oct 3 2021, NBC News: “Democrats wanted to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill and keep negotiating on the progressives' larger social spending wish list.”
Oct 3 2021, PBS News Hour: “That's a much more ambitious bill originally pegged at around $3.5 trillion. That was a kind of progressive wish list, pre-K, free community college, expanded health care, prescription drug prices, action on climate, senior care, child care.”
Oct 5 2021, Wall Street Journal: “Democrats wrestled Tuesday with how to squeeze their wish list of programs and tax changes into a social policy and climate package whose size and scope centrists in the party are willing to support.”
Oct 6 2021, CNN” “Whatever the top-line figure ends up being, there are three main ways that Democrats can reduce the cost of the package: Remove items from their massive wish list...”
Oct 6 2021, Bloomberg: “Tough Choices Loom for Democrats Paring $3.5 Trillion Wish List”
Oct 16 2021, The Economist: “Were this wish list passed in its entirety…”
Oct 18 2021, AP: “Biden said Friday he prefers including all of the wish-list proposals”
Oct 20 2021, MSNBC’s Ari Melber: “But basically, big picture, that also means some things have to be cut. On the chopping block or priorities that some have seen as kind of a progressive wish list, like funding college tuition or investing in climate change solutions.”
Oct 21 2021, Politico: “Republican leaders are already using Democrats’ fiscal wish list as a political cudgel”
Oct 25 2021, Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell: “As Democrats decide how to trim their safety-net-and-climate bill, progressives argue for keeping every item on their wish list.”
Oct 26 2021, Time Magazine: “Biden’s Democratic wish-list...”
Merriam-Webster defines a “wish list” as “a list of desired but often realistically unobtainable items.” So, just so there’s no confusion, dozens of media outlets are just casually asserting that climate change policies (to say nothing of the bill’s other anti-poverty measures) are per se unobtainable and unrealistic, and thus editorializing against them.
Science-based, absolutely essential first steps to even appearing serious about climate change are treated as a “wish list”—something a child writes to Santa Claus. Again, maybe theoretically swell, but not essential or non-negotiable. A pie-in-the-sky ideal that, if we lived in a world of infinite resources, would be nice but really isn’t something we must pass—when the only thing we absolutely know for 100 percent certainty is that, if one thing is actually “must pass,” it’s efforts to curb our runaway carbon emissions.