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Ad Audit: Big Business Group Compares Congress To Slick Hucksters

AD TITLE:  “The Fast Sale

SPONSOR: U.S. Chamber of Commerce

SUMMARY: Comparing lawmakers to sleazy street-corner salesmen, the lobbying arm for big business complains that lawmakers are trying to rush a health care overhaul through before the public can digest it. But the details the ad claims Congress is trying to gloss over have been debated for months.

BACKGROUND: This ad is part of a campaign launched in July by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which describes itself as the “world’s largest business federation” representing more than three million businesses. The chamber says it expects to spend $7 million or more on this phase of its ad campaign, the same as it spent on an earlier round of advertisements. The chamber says the ad is airing in 21 states where lawmakers are ambivalent or undecided about the Democratic plan. Those states include Arkansas, Colorado and Nebraska, where both sides of the debate have targeted a significant chunk of their advertising. 

AUDIO AND VISUALS: Vaudevillian music plays. A split screen shows a sports-jacket-clad salesman sliding open the back of a truck parked behind a building near a dumpster. Inside the truck, there are boxes of merchandise alongside signs that say “no refunds” and “cash only.” Simultaneously, on the other side of the screen, another salesman standing on a city street holds open a briefcase filled with watches. As both launch into rapid, unintelligible patter, a female voiceover says: “You know the type. There’s a reason why some want to make a fast sale.” The screen shows an actor playing a smiling member of Congress standing behind a podium at a news conference. “Now Congress wants to make the fast sale on government-run health care. What don’t they want you to know? Maybe it’s the trillion-dollar price tag. Or maybe the billions in higher taxes. Or the 239 billion in debt we’ll owe when the sale is final.” A man in a suit behind a desk holds up a legal contract entitled “Government-run health care,” points a pen at the bottom of the page where a red X marks a line for a signature, and hands the pen toward the camera. “The fast sale on government-run health care? No way.” The narrator concludes: “Let’s get serious and reform health care the right way,” as the screen displays the same phrase. The screen directs viewers to call the main number for the Senate switchboard, and lists the web address for the chamber-run Campaign for Responsible Health Reform.

POLITICS: The business group opposes a government-run insurer to compete with private companies. It fears this “public option” would pay medical providers low reimbursement rates, prompting doctors and hospitals to make up for the low fees by charging private insurers and businesses higher prices. The chamber also opposes Democratic proposals to require employers to provide their workers with insurance or pay fines to help the government cover them. The chamber favors limiting malpractice and medical liability lawsuits, and letting individuals and the self-employed purchase health insurance with pre-tax dollars – just as many people do who work for big companies.

ACCURACY: The chamber exaggerates the speed at which health care legislation is moving through Congress. The Senate Finance Committee staff released a white paper on May 14 that prominently included a government-run insurer as an option for lawmakers to consider, yet four months later the panels chairman has not introduced a bill as negotiators try to find bipartisan agreement. The House legislation, introduced on July 14, has been approved by three committees but hasn’t yet come to the floor.  

The ad’s claim that Congress “doesn’t want you to know” the financial costs of health care legislation is specious. In fact, the “trillion dollar price tag” and $239 billion of deficit spending cited by the ad are estimates released July 17 by Congress’s own nonpartisan budget analysts. Those figures have been reported and dissected by the media for months.

The chamber says the ad’s reference to a “fast sale” refers to a possible Democratic strategy to push the health care bill through the Senate using budget rules that allow for a majority vote rather than the 60 votes needed to avoid a Republican filibuster. But the purpose of that maneuver would not be to hide the details of the bill-as the ad alleges-but to prevent Republicans from blocking a Democratic bill.