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Killing the 'Killing' Words

This story was going to be about the Republicans' almost unprecedented step of injecting inflammatory, up-yours language right smack into the official title of a Congressional bill, as they did last week with the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act." And it will be about that. But it's hard to write about their new "job-killing" meme after the real killings in Tucson, which left Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life, six people dead and twelve others wounded.

No, I'm not jumping to the conclusion that the alleged shooter, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, was influenced by right-wing rhetoric. We don't know enough yet. Whatever was in his mind—and from his YouTube videos, it appears to have been a mess of paranoid antigovernment conspiracy theories—it's unlikely that this particular "job-killing" catchphrase contributed one iota to his crimes. Apparently, he had long been planning to assassinate Giffords.

But, here's the but: the Tea Party and its more fervent Republican enablers have been marketing death rhetoric for quite a while now. It's not just the obvious gun-happy talk, like Sharron Angle saying if Washington doesn't change we might need "Second Amendment remedies," or Sarah "Reload" Palin placing Giffords and other Democratic reps who voted for healthcare reform in the crosshairs on a US map, or talk radio host Joyce Kaufman saying, "If ballots don't work, bullets will." Or even Giffords's Tea Party opponent inviting folks to "Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

The sorry truth is Republicans know that talk about death and killing works. Saying the Democrats represent a modern, science-based bureaucracy that can roll over in its sleep and crush the life out of you is their stock-in-trade. It began with the anti-abortion cries of "Baby killer!" which fringers used to justify the murder of abortion doctors like George Tiller, whom Bill O'Reilly called "Tiller the Baby Killer" for years. Just last week the term "death panel" rose from its crypt to scare Obama away—again—from recommending end-of-life consultations in the new health care rules.

Nasty nicknames began to really pop up in legislative language with the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 and one of its star phrases: "death tax," a k a the estate tax. Once relabeled by Republicans, "death tax" went on to appear in bill titles and text. The phrase chalked up a major victory just last month, when the Obama-McConnell tax deal cut the rate from 45 to 35 percent while allowing estates worth less than $5 million to skip paying taxes altogether.

So it made sense that when the Republican leadership needed to re-demonize health care reform in order to repeal it, they'd come up with a variation on the tried and true. Besides, they couldn't very well call their bill the "Repealing the Government Takeover of Health Care Law Act." The fact-checking site Politifact recently deemed that catchy bit of propaganda the "Lie of the Year."

And so, whether by luck or by Luntz, the John Boehner–led House lit upon "job-killing," and they've been tearing up the House floor with it ever since:

What's distinctive about the modifier "job-killing" isn't its robotic repetition, its false claim (more on that later) or its Lego-like ability to snap onto any noun ("tax increases," "regulations" or the 9/11 first responders health bill, which, back in July, Republicans called a "massive job-killing new entitlement program"). All of that is standard GOP rhetorical fare. What's different here is that Republicans have thrown the juvenile job-killing charge into the middle of the official title of what they want to be their signature legislation, as if they're thrusting a middle finger up in the face of the Big Government.  

And they knew the media would eat it up. As TV reporters repeated the title last week, they often did so with a chuckle or an arched brow, the impropriety of the statute's name effortlessly cutting through the blah-blah of the news. It's made for TV, a show-bizzy, tabloid tag for a show-bizzy, purely symbolic vote (it will pass the House but not the Senate or Obama's veto pen).  

In fact, I found it hard not to laugh every time I said the title out loud when asking researchers just how unusual these sorts of names are. 

It's not that all bill names are written in neutralese. We have the euphemisms, like the Patriot Act, and the clever acronyms, like CAN-SPAM (for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act).

But as Chris Sagers, a law professor at Cleveland State University, who researches statute names, e-mailed me, "I can think of no other statute title quite like this one," nothing "that quite so directly criticizes a sitting President or the immediately preceding congressional leadership as this one does." (He added, "There just weren't flippant or politicizing formal short names until the past 30-40 years, and they have proliferated...")

"This one strikes me as really extreme," agrees Mary Whisner, a University of Washington law librarian who wrote "What's In a Statute Name?" for the Legal Information & Technology eJournal. Whisner tracked down a few instances when "job-killing" was used in the text of bills, including, in 1992, before the words " 'luxury' excise taxes" and last year as a prefix for "Federal Employer Mandate." But only once, in the current "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act," has the phrase appeared in the formal "short title," or popular name, of a bill.

That boldness itself takes your eye off the lie, that HCR will kill jobs, which it won't. Harvard economist David Cutler argues in a new paper that "repealing the health law would reverse [job gains created in the expanded healthcare sector] and could destroy 250,000 to 400,000 jobs annually over the next decade." And most important, the "GOP canard," as Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein writes, takes our eyes off real deaths. "What's particularly noteworthy about this fixation with ‘job killing' is that it stands in such contrast to the complete lack of concern about policies that kill people rather than jobs. Repealing health-care reform, for instance, would inevitably lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths each year because of an inability to get medical care."  

After the Giffords shooting, House majority leader Eric Cantor announced that the House will postpone all legislative activity, including the repeal vote, which was originally scheduled for later this week. I admit I briefly held out the hope that the House majority would see the light about its over-the-top rhetoric and at least change the name, if only to avoid railing about faux "killing" after real violence against one of their members.

That's unlikely. But I'm not the only one to hope so. On Sunday, Fox's Shep Smith interviewed Patricia Maisch, the woman described as a hero for snatching a second magazine out of Loughner's hands as he tried to reload. She told Smith that she's not a hero, that she grabbed the clip only after two men had already tackled the suspect and were holding him on the ground. Toward the end of the interview, Smith asked, because media needs its uplift, "Is there anything you can leave us with that will make us all feel better?"

"I don't think so," Maisch said, then surprised him by adding, "[Pima County] Sheriff Dubnik said it best, that the extreme right reporters and radio and TV have added to this problem, and I'm just hoping that will change because of this. That's my hope, that the Republicans will stop naming bills in very hateful [ways], like the job-killing—whatever the rest of that bill is."

 
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