Arnold Kling  

Shaping the Story

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The Washington Post reports,

A majority of Senate Republicans appeared to break Tuesday with two decades of GOP orthodoxy against higher taxes, voting to advance a plan to abruptly cancel billions of dollars in annual tax credits for ethanol blenders.

The story continues in this vein, for paragraph after paragraph. The Post is instructing its readers that the most important fact about the ethanol subsidy vote is that it demonstrates the hypocrisy of the Republicans, who say they are for lower taxes but in fact want to increase taxes on ethanol blenders.

Ordinarily, I do not spend time on media criticism. But this approach to writing the story on the ethanol vote truly outraged me.

1. The most important thing about the ethanol subsidy is that it is bad policy, as the Post editorial page and even previous supporters acknowledge.

2. The next most important thing about the ethanol subsidy is that it is a classic case of rent-seeking. The beneficiaries are relatively few but relatively well organized. It is in the interest of politicians to vote to keep it, even though it is against the interest of most of their constituents.

3. Finally, if you still think that the important issue in the vote concerns what it says about your willingness to raise taxes, then certainly the Democrats are being hypocritical by voting as a bloc to keep the subsidy. Why is it the alleged Republican hypocrisy that gets all of the focus?

4. In explaining the defeat of the Republican attempt to end the subsidy, the article focuses on the actions of Grover Norquist. However, Norquist's influence is presumably on Republicans. But most of those who voted to keep the subsidy were Democrats, and the story offers no insight into how they were persuaded.

All in all, this was shockingly bad journalism.

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (7 to date)
Don Boudreaux writes:


John Thacker writes:

The way that the Democrats were persuaded, incidentally, is that Sen. Coburn was able to force a cloture vote on the proposal without going through the standard procedure to get the Majority Leadership to schedule a vote.

Majority Leader Reid heavily whipped on the procedural issue, because the majority party, and more precisely the leadership, gets a tremendous amount of power from its ability to control what is actually voted on and when.

In exchange for promising a vote later, Reid was able to get Democrats to vote to defend majority party privileges rather than on the underlying issue.

Daniel Klein writes:

Nice critique.

Robert writes:

Arnold, you probably don't read liberal blogs, but Jonathan Chait has been talking about this vote for some time and explains what was really happening here:

"...The mistake is his assumption that Senate Republicans just happened to abandon Norquist because they oppose ethanol, and so on this particular issue, they voted their opposition to ethanol over their opposition to taxes.

That isn't what's going on here. Virtually all the media coverage has gotten this vote wrong. Tom Coburn was not going about this in order to eliminate the ethanol subsidy. He made no attempt to work with the House, line up a majority, woo Senate Democrats, arrange for a vote on favorable terms, or do any of the things that Senators do when they're trying to pass a law. His goal was to do one thing: set a trap for Grover Norquist. He's been laying the trap since March.

The point of it is to establish a principle. Republicans working on a bipartisan deficit deal want to define the closing of tax expenditures as not constituting a tax increase. Their problem is that the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which virtually all Republicans in Congress have signed, specifically defines closing tax expenditures as a tax hike. Coburn's ploy was a way of getting a foot in the door. That's exactly why Norquist is so enraged at Coburn."

Arnold Kling writes:


To me, it's great news that Republicans voted against the subsidy. Chait's conspiracy theory to try to explain away this vote is beside the point. It is important only if you are trying to draw attention away from the fact that the Democrats support this subsidy.

Shaping the story in this manner reeks of Journolist (the discussion group among left-wing journalists formed during the Obama campaign). My guess is that Chait and the Post reporters are alumnae of that effort.

Robert writes:


Coburn introduced a bill that would end the ethanol subsidy. In promoting this bill, he exclusively focused on and criticized conservatives who support the ethanol subsidy. He went out of his way to criticize Grover Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge and had several public exchanges with Norquist. This Journolist writer has more>

He appears to have spent no time criticizing the Democrats who support the ethanol subsidy. He spent no time working with the house or trying to line up votes to actually end the subsidy. He forced a vote using a procedural tactic without any input from party leadership. After the vote, he called out and criticized Grover Norquist, again.

If you think those are the actions of a man trying to expose bad Democratic policy, I'm not sure what to tell you.

The Washington Post reporters got the story basically right. They saw the vote and added context, whereas you saw the vote and thought it told the entire story. BTW, the main point of that story isn't that Republicans are hypocrites, it's that Coburn wants to get rid of tax subsidies to reduce the deficit and is trying to garner Republican support. It's not clear why you are interpreting this differently.

David C writes:

The news articles I've glanced through have all reported on variants of the same thing. Here is the Wall Street Journal for example:
"The Senate didn't reach the 60 votes needed to proceed to a vote, undermined by Democratic leaders frustrated at the procedural maneuver used to bring the measure to the floor." emphasis mine
There's no mention in the story of anyone being frustrated at the Democrats for supporting a bad policy. If this is all a matter of liberal groupthink, then everybody in Washington, including the Republicans and the interest groups trying to get rid of the subsidy, seems to be in on it. That's quite a conspiracy theory you have there.

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