The Media Won’t Cover “Message Bills.” Why Not Subpoena and Impeach?

House Democrats are frustrated, and understandably so. Despite passing a wide array of bills that would genuinely benefit people, that never seems to break through to the public at large. The full collection of House bills, if signed into law, would be transformative, improving lives on issues from healthcare to guns, the environment, civil rights, and even democracy itself.

But all the media oxygen is going either to the Democratic presidential candidates or to investigations of the president. House Democratic leadership is slow-walking subpoenas and avoiding beginning impeachment investigations, partly because they’re concerned they won’t be adequately supported, and because they can read polling that shows the public would far rather see Democrats focus on improving healthcare than launching partisan inquiries into Trump. They want the press to cover bills like HR1—not whatever is happening with the latest stonewalling of Trump’s taxes, or the Russia inquiry. At the very least, they would like to see more coverage of Republican Senate’s record obstruction of nearly all legislation under Mitch McConnell’s leadership.

But this sort of thinking is terribly misguided. There’s a very good reason that media coverage of Democratic House bills is so limited: they’re “message bills” with absolutely no chance of getting through the Senate or being signed by President Trump.

Now, it’s true that passing those bills is a great idea for several reasons: they put Republican opponents in the House on the record as opposing popular policies; they signal intent about what kind of policies Democrats would like to enact for the country; and they serve as a ready legislative template if and when Democrats regain unitary control of Congress and the White House. But since there’s no prayer of these bills passing anytime soon, the press simply isn’t going to cover them; there’s simply no story to cover. Also, we’ve seen time and again political parties being willing to pass certain bills when they know they won’t actually be enacted, only to dial back their supposed ambitions once they actually gain the power to legislate in earnest.

House Democrats could, in theory, wait until the end of the world for someone to start talking about their bills to protect pre-existing conditions or provide universal childcare. It’s still not going to happen. Democrats can issue subpoenas and impeach or not, and it won’t change one iota the amount of attention their message bills receive. If Speaker Pelosi and her team wants to gain attention for their work, it’s going to be in the form of paid media and advertising during political campaigns, not earned media. And even then, once paid media season arrives, the focus will be almost entirely on the presidential contest.

These realities are as certain as death, taxes, and the sunrise. So rather than pointlessly fighting against them, Democrats should fearlessly do whatever duty requires in regard to putting the brakes on a lawless and corrupt executive. As Paul Waldman noted at the Plum Line earlier this month:

 There is no reason to believe, however, that setting aside impeachment will allow Democrats to focus everyone’s attention on their preferred policy issues.

As Jentleson says, what gets attention are events. And not just that, but events that are inherently controversial. The dreamers bill passing the House is an event, but it’s missing the elements that will lead news organizations to give it featured coverage: the potential for fighting between the parties, an uncertain outcome, the revelation of new information, or some kind of meaningful change that puts the “new” in “news.” Republicans are barely bothering to argue against it, because they know that for the moment it will fall into the yawning void of McConnell’s Senate, never to be heard from again as long as he’s in control.

Nothing else is going through the clutter. Democrats might as well do what is right, not what their internal polls tell them voters might want in an ideal media world.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.