Monday, August 10, 2009

The rhetorical orgin of Sarah Palin's "death panel"

Snail darterNorther spotted owl

Despite her July 26, 2009, resignation as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin remains a formidable political force. She has shifted her primary written platform from Twitter to Facebook.

Sarah Palin's Facebook page has had an immediate and profound impact on national politics. Her Statement on the Current Health Care Debate notably handed opponents of health care reform a potent rhetorical weapon:
The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but . . . government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.
Health care reform, whatever its virtues or drawbacks, will do no such thing. That at any rate is my belief; I side with those observers who believe that Palin's fictional "death panel" has grotesquely wounded political discourse on health policy. But my objective here is not political. I aim simply to trace the rhetorical origin of the term death panel.

In all of American law, exactly one phrase carries a resonance comparable to death panel. Its source is undoubtedly familiar to Sarah Palin: the Endangered Species Act Amendments of 1978, Pub. L. No. 95-632, 92 Stat. 375. In an effort to inject more flexibility into the act after TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153 (1978), the 1978 amendments created the Endangered Species Committee and empowered it, upon a vote of no fewer than five of its seven members, to exempt a federal agency from section 7 of the original Endangered Species Act of 1973. These conditions must be met before the committee authorizes a section 7 exemption:
  1. There must be no reasonable alternative to the agency's action.
  2. The benefits of the action must outweigh the benefits of conserving the species.
  3. The action is of regional or national importance.
  4. Neither the federal agency or the exemption applicant made irreversible commitment to the resources.
Of course, no one calls the Endangered Species Committee by that name. Everyone calls it the God Squad. That name is apt, not because the committee possesses "collective wisdom but because the decisions it may render were once left to an even higher authority."

As governor of Alaska and as an avid, lifelong hunter, Sarah Palin has been quick to find fault with federal environmental law. She is no fan of aggressive enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. That statute's God Squad restores some of the anthropocentric "balance" that one might imagine Sarah Palin to favor. Strange though it may seem, this rarely invoked provision of the Endangered Species Act may well have triggered the poetic imagination of Sarah Palin. The "God Squad" appears to given her the rhetorical weapon by which to condemn the feared potential of health care reform to assume divine power over life and death.


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