Sunday, February 18, 2007


Framing the Vote in Congress

George Lakoff and Fred Luntz have explained how framing an issue, that is, giving it a special name, gives the framer an advantage in debating and voting on the issue. A classic example is to rename the "estate tax" the "death tax," as though in some way one is to be taxed simply for dying. Never mind that the tax is not paid by the person who dies, but by the heirs. If the estate is divided among many heirs so that no heir inherits more than the specified amount that is not taxed, there is no estate tax. At one time the maximum amount of an inheritance free of the estate tax was $600,000. If I have an estate of $1,500,000 and my will stipulates that my two children have equal shares, each will receive $750,000 and will pay tax on $750,000 minus $600,000, or $150,000. If I have three children and they share equally, each inherits $500,000 and pays no tax.

A more recent example of framing an issue exists in the U.S. Senate regarding the debate - or the question of having a debate - about disapproving of President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. The minority Republicans, still showing their loyalty to a President of their party, insist on presenting their own resolution before voting on the Democrats' resolution of disapproval. The Republican resolution would require a vote on cutting off or reducing funding for the Iraq war and would be framed as a vote to "support" or "cut off support" for the troops. Aware of the psychological power of framing the issue as "support the troops" instead of "criticize the President," the Democrats have refused to accept the Republicans' alternative motion.

By framing the issue in this way, the Republicans have managed to delay any vote in the Senate on a motion to criticize the way the President has handled or mis-handled the war. They have also again exposed the cowardice and ineptness of the Democratic leadership at being placed in such a position. The federal constitution creates the President, the courts, and the Congress as three separate institutions. Unlike national leaders in many democratic countries, our President does not need the approval of Congress in conducting foreign policy or military operations. Because of the stability and rigidity of our institutions, the President also does not need the approval of the American People. If a President of any Latin American country tried to carry on a war that an overwhelming majority of the public opposed, he would soon be drummed or chased out of office.

I was taught in high school that the power of Congress is the power to appropriate or deny money to pay for a President's military forays. It is perfectly proper for Congress to debate whether to fund a military operation and to deny funding for an operation which it disapproves. Approving or denying funding is the only means available to Congress, except for impeachment, to rein in a President who is both overconfident and incompetent. The Republicans have, for the time being, managed to stifle debate and voting on a simple resolution of disapproval by framing the issue as "supporting the troops" rather than "reining in a President's overconfident plan." It's a clever ploy. It may take a long time for the public to see through it.
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