Like dancing hippos: Twitter and the CBO

The Congressional Budget Office's analysis of the healthcare bill sets off a tweet-storm. Patriotic, or just weird?

Published March 18, 2010 10:45PM (EDT)

You know you are living in a strange universe when the keyword "CBO" -- the abbreviation for Congressional Budget Office -- becomes so popular on Twitter that sleazy porn outfits like AdultFriendFinder incorporate the acronym into their tweet spam to drum up business. Call me squeamish, but I find it a little off-putting to have geeky arguments about the budgetary implications of new health care legislation interrupted by nonsense tweets attached to pictures of genitalia in compromising positions. It's yucky.

But it also means that for at least a few hours on Thursday, after the nonpartisan CBO sent a jolt through the political landscape by declaring that the latest version of health care reform legislation would cut the federal budget by $130 billion in its first 10 years and possibly far more in the ten years after that, the Congressional Budget Office was twitterifically hot. As hot as Justin Bieber, March Madness, and #howyouathug. So hot that even the porn spammers wanted to hitch a ride on its popularity.

(BTW, #howyouathug when you downloadin' the CBO score of the hcr bill? Just sayin')

Rachel Maddow, the progressive MSNBC news affair talk show host meta-tweeted on the topic about midway through the peak CBO craziness: "Is it weird that CBO being a trending topic makes me feel patriotic?"

I don't know whether it's weird to feel patriotic at the sight of this spectacle, but it certainly is weird, period. There are few things more arcane or complex in modern U.S. political life than a CBO analysis of proposed legislation; to see it debated over in staccato bursts of 140 character communiques is the most bizarre mismatch between form and content since those dancing hippopotami graced the screen in Disney's "Fantasia."

Talk about your cacophonies! The beauty of a keyword search on Twitter on a politically hot topic is that you get all sides at once. For every disgruntled conservative quoting The Atlantic's Megan McArdle blogging that "this is a fiscal disaster waiting to happen" there's an ecstatic liberal retweeting the White House tweet, "'Responsible and Paid For': Orszag & CBO settle the debate once & for all on #hcr, costs & the deficit."

Once and for all? As if. The CBO score may have paved the way to a successful Democratic vote on Sunday but the debate is hardly over. Not when RNC Chairman Michael Steele is declaring that the the CBO numbers are "a lie" (a point endlessly tweeted by both the left and the right!) and House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence is telling Sean Hannity that "Medicare cost seven times more than CBO projected."

I learned that last fact from a tweet from Matt Lewis, a conservative who writes for Politics Daily. And that led to one of the more entertaining tweet-threads of the day, as the Washington Independent's Dave Weigel quickly retorted that "CBO didn't exist until 1974." (Medicare originally passed in 1965).

The comedian Sam Seder wasted no time in creating a new hashtag (a made-up keyword to make Twitter threads searchable) -- #mikepencetalkingpoint -- and the jokesters were off and running:

  • @samseder CBO completely underestimated cost of Columbus journey to America
  • @julied200 CBO underestimated cost of revolution. We're still paying for it!
  • @AdamSerwer: Greece only invaded Troy because of a faulty CBO estimate showing it would reduce the deficit.
  • @ ZandarVTS Third Punic war was only needed because CBO screwed up cost estimates of the first two.

And so on. And on the Twitter hordes rage. Hundreds of Twitterers rebroadcast the Pence comment on Medicare, hundreds more retweeted Weigel's takedown. Never before, I will bet, have so many people decided they needed to express an opinion about the Congressional Budget Office. Beneath all the trivial sturm und drang, there's a serious point-- the battle over health care reform has fully penetrated the consciousness of the United States, whether expressed out on the street or in the voting booth or via a Twitter riff. History is being made, and we know it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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