For Independence Day, a Messaging War

Billy House
National Journal

Lawmakers hit the Fourth of July parade, picnic, and fireworks circuit this week equipped by their leaders with tips on seizing the upper hand on issues ranging from student loans, immigration, and energy policy, to the budget impasse, health care, and the IRS scandal.

These messaging playbooks are not just a dose of the usual populism and partisan sloganeering, aimed at the weeklong congressional recess. They come complete with prefab op-eds and press releases that members can pitch to local news outfits, suggestions for staging media events, and strategies for using tweets, digital flyers, Google hangouts, and other social media.

Whether the messaging tool ends up being from the old school or the new, with congressional approval ratings stuck at swamp-low levels, the blame game will be in full swing.

Both parties will be pointing fingers over issues like Congress's failure to meet the deadline to stop student-loan interest rates from doubling on Monday. There are a number of proposals to reverse the jump in that rate of the subsidized Stafford loan from 3.4 to 6.8 percent, but lawmakers failed to reach an agreement.

"It's time for the Senate to act and join the House in passing a smarter solution that takes Washington politics out of students' wallets," is one message suggested to House Republicans. Also included in the GOP's strategy playbook was an example of a tweet by Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., in which she asks, "Do you have student loans w/rates that will double if the president and Senate don't act? Tweet back and tell me. We may share your story."

For their part, House Democratic leaders have delivered their members a set of talking points on immigration reform, emphasizing that the Senate acted in a bipartisan 68-32 vote Thursday to pass its version of a bill and that a House task force has been working on similar legislation.

Democrats are encouraged to tell constituents that now it's the House's turn to act, and that "the House must take up this measure without further delay so we can then work with the Senate to make comprehensive immigration reform the law of the land."

But Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Thursday that House Republicans, for their part, will be "listening to our constituents" about what they want on immigration reform and that the House will not be taking up the Senate's bill. After hearing from their constituents, he said, House Republicans will hold a closed-door conference on July 10 in Washington, where "we'll have a conversation on the way forward." He also said any immigration legislation that moves forward in the House will have to carry the support of a majority of the chamber's Republicans.

House Democratic leaders also have equipped their own rank and file with strategies to hit Republicans on refusing to go to a two-chamber conference to work out differences on a fiscal 2014 budget plan. A suggested press release leaves a blank where the Democratic lawmaker can fill in his or her name to call on "Republican leaders to appoint negotiators to work out a budget."

This one-version-fits-all-Democrats press release goes on:

"This GOP intransigence on the budget has real consequences for the American people and our economy," said Rep. (NAME). "This year's GOP sequester cuts have started taking their toll. Right after the July 4th holiday, XXX civilian defense workers here in (STATE) will be furloughed and see their pay cut by as much as 20 percent. This Independence Day, Americans need a balanced approach to the budget that replaces these mindless GOP sequester cuts that are weakening our national security and economy."

Rank-and-file House Democrats were also are urged to hold a press event that will help provide personal stories to highlight the impact of sequester cuts, such as visiting a homeless shelter or holding a domestic-violence roundtable.

But Republicans have their own plans, which they say will put them on offense. Those include playing up the offshore-drilling bills they are offering and attacking President Obama's new climate-change initiatives, taking care to label them as a "war on coal."

One example of a tweet from Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind., which was provided to fellow Republicans by their leadership, declares, "The president's new rules and regulations on coal will mean higher energy costs & fewer jobs for Hoosiers." Meanwhile, the GOP playbook includes a digital flyer that lawmakers can use, which says opening up new offshore areas for energy exploration will create as many as 1.2 million jobs.

Republican lawmakers are also being urged to emphasize that an "out-of-control, irresponsible government is a serious obstacle to economic growth," and that the GOP is the party fighting to stop waste.

In addition, they are being asked to highlight the ongoing scrutiny of the Internal Revenue Service for its treatment of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status and its lavish spending on conferences. A recommended tweet: "Target conservatives by day. Party & dance by night! #IRS."

"Can America trust the scandal-ridden IRS to enforce ObamaCare?" is one of the punch-lines contained in talking points from the Senate Republican Conference.

Senate Republicans also include in their talking points a warning to constituents about a potential "Democratic Power Grab" by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. At issue is whether Reid might eventually use the so-called "nuclear option" to allow filibusters on federal judicial appointments to be broken with a simple majority vote. "Reid promised the Senate and American people that he wouldn't break the rules to change the rules. Will Reid keep his word?" is a question floated by one Senate Republican talking point.

The recess messaging wars come as polls continue to show public-approval ratings for Congress at rock bottom. One poll released June 13 by Gallup showed just 10 percent of those surveyed had confidence in Congress, down from 13 percent a year ago.

"This is the lowest level of confidence Gallup has found, not only for Congress, but for any institution on record," the pollsters wrote. The random survey of 1,529 adults nationwide was conducted by telephone June 1-4; the results have a margin of error of 3 percentage points.