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Dancing around legislative language

By MARKHAM HEID, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE, Written for UPI   |   Oct. 6, 2009 at 10:35 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Oct. 6 (UPI) -- Some say it's a "tax," while others say it's a "penalty." U.S. President Barack Obama, during a blustery exchange with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, insisted it is a "responsibility." And U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe has proposed calling it a "defined minimum contribution."

The cause of all the verbal volleyball on Capitol Hill is one section of the Senate Finance Committee's healthcare bill regarding Americans choosing to eschew health insurance coverage.

Under the heading "Personal Responsibility Requirement," the bill stipulates that "the consequence for not maintaining insurance would be an excise tax."

New taxes are common when enacting sweeping legislative reform but debate surrounding the excise tax has caught fire when held above the president's campaign promise not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 annually.

The excise tax would likely affect people from every income bracket.

As the president's television appearance demonstrated, politicians are aware of the effects of language on the public perception and success of new legislation.

And so it is significant that Snowe, R-Maine and presumed to be one of the few Republicans amenable to the idea of universal healthcare legislation, proposed an amendment that would make a section of the bill -- at least superficially -- more palatable to voters.

On Thursday, Snowe teamed with U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to chop the individual mandate (yet another name for the excise tax) from a maximum of $1,900 to $1,500 for families.

"I would prefer to have no penalties," Snowe has said of the excise tax but her attempt to change the language of the bill surrounding the tax indicates her willingness to vote for healthcare reform.

A representative from Snowe's office, implying that the amendment was proposed to spur discussion on the topic, said, "Heading into this (healthcare bill markup) we barely had time to read through the mark. You file a lot of different amendments to cover a lot of different ground."

The senator's word swap was never formally discussed during the markup but that doesn't mean the excise tax won't morph into a "defined minimum contribution" by the time the bill is considered in the Senate.

"The fact is, words matter," Snowe said during last week's markup and savvy politicians understand that at no time is that more true than during the debate over controversial legislation.

In the 1990s, politicians opposed to an estate tax employed the term "death tax" in an effort to build support in opposition support.

More recently, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin sparked a rhetorical wildfire when she referred to the idea of end-of-life consultations for the elderly and infirm as "death panels."

While such harsh language often fails to make it into the formal columns of congressional legislation, politicians recognize the language of a bill can make all the difference.

"I don't see it as deceptive," said Stephen Hess, a former member of the Nixon and Eisenhower administrations and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "I just see it as maybe too clever by half."

Hess said the legislation lingo had changed a great deal since he got his start in government half a century ago when "we called a farm bill a farm bill."

And while he questioned the influence such linguistic semantics can have on the popularity of a piece of legislation, he acknowledged that it could have some effect on the opinions of less-informed voters.

It remains to be seen whether a switch from a "tax" to a "defined minimum contribution" will spell success for universal healthcare.

© 2009 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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