During 2009's long summer of angry town halls, it was very common for Democrats touting the benefits of health care reform to constituents to be met with furious resistance and loud denunciations. I attended one at my old high school in Reston, Virginia, and got to experience the typical contretemps -- Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) attempted to debunk every rumor on the Internet, and health care reform opponents booed and jeered (at least until Moran succeeded in listing Internet rumors that were so obscure that the attendees hadn't even heard them).
Now, Congress is out of session and House Republicans are returning to their districts to tout the benefits of Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wisc.) plan to turn Medicare into a system of worthless vouchers, and guess what? Town halls are getting heated once again. Trend-piece alert!
Fresh off voting for the so-called Paul Ryan budget plan on Friday, newly-elected Congressman Robert Dold returned to Buffalo Grove Saturday where constituents questioned him about several elements of the Republican budget.
But Dold couldn't even get to the end of the presentation before audience members began peppering him with questions about the Ryan budget, named after House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin. It began with audience members telling Dold they don't believe chopping 10 percentage points off the highest corporate tax rate will create jobs. A handful of people in the audience identified themselves as business owners and accountants who said their effective corporate income tax rate is already lower than the lowest rates proposed in the Ryan plan. They pointed to companies such as GE that pay almost no taxes despite billions in profits as evidence.
Some in the audience then told Dold they don't like the idea in the Ryan budget plan of Medicare becoming a voucher program that makes senior citizens buy private health insurance about 10 years from now. Audience members said buying private insurance is a shell game where no one really knows what costs a company will cover or to what degree.
Reminiscent of the August 2009 town halls when members of Congress faced angry constituents over health care reforms, a public forum in Carbon County with Rep. Lou Barletta Wednesday night provided a glimpse of the strong emotions stirred by a Republican plan to alter Medicare benefits.
At the start of his town hall meeting -- in a county that is predominately Republican-leaning and 17 percent over 65 years old -- Barletta welcomed people to use the conversation to get things off their chests. While he was going through a slide projector presentation about the Medicare changes proposed by House Republican Paul Ryan, a woman raised her hand. (Updated: Carbon County actually has more Democrats registered, but has leaned Republican in the last few election cycles.)
"Excuse me, I'd like to get something off my chest," she said, standing. "You seem to think that because I'm not effected I won't care if my niece, my grandson, my child is affected. I do care. What you're doing with this Ryan budget is you're taking Medicare and changing it from a guaranteed health care system to one that is a voucher system where you throw seniors on the mercy of for-profit insurance companies..."
"You said nothing in the campaign about I'm going to change Medicare, now you voted for a plan that will destroy Medicare," Linda Christman, 64, said. Christman is president of the Carbon County Democrats for Change, according to Barletta's office.
"I won't destroy Medicare, Medicare is going to be destroyed by itself," Barletta said.
Then it got ugly.
Rep. Charlie Bass knew he was in for a rough night. The first question out of the gate during his Wednesday town hall in Hillsborough, NH was about his vote for Paul Ryan's budget. And the second. And the third and the fourth, fifth and sixth questions. "I enjoyed the discourse," he said, almost hopefully, afterward. "It's important to speak with people who disagree with me. Of course there was going to be backlash."
To be fair, most of those politely probing him - they might have been angrier without the presence of two state police officers, a new phenomenon in the post-Gabby Giffords era - were Democrats who'd never voted for him. But there were a few swing voters in the mix. Erik Spitzbarth, 62, and his wife Diane Loomis drove 15 minutes from Hancock. They are the quintessential swing voters. Both are independents who voted for Bass in 2010. But Spitzbarth voted for John McCain in 2008 and Loomis pulled the lever for Barack Obama. They pay $1,700 a month in health care premiums. If health care reform had included an early buy-in for those 60+ into Medicare, they say they'd be die-hard ObamaCare supporters. But as it stands, they like neither health care reform nor Ryan's budget. "This is just salt in the wound," Spitzbarth - questioner No. 4 - lamented to Bass. Afterward he said he was fed up with both parties. "I think Washington should go green and recycle all of the waste," he said as Loomis nodded at his side, "the system is broken."
And, of course, there's Ryan himself:
During a town hall meeting in Milton, a constituent who described himself as a "lifelong conservative" asked Ryan about the effects of growing income inequality in our nation. The constituent noted that huge income disparities contributed to the Great Depression and the Great Recession, and thus wanted to know why the congressman was "fighting to not let the tax breaks for the wealthy expire."
Ryan argued against "redistribut[ing]" in this manner. After the constituent noted that "there's nothing wrong with taxing the top because it does not trickle down," Ryan argued that "we do tax the top." This response earned a chorus of boos from constituents.
It would seem that Ryan's plan for voucherizing Medicare isn't particularly popular. As Ezra Klein points out, the idea wasn't particularly popular in 1995, either. "The only deficit-reduction option that is popular? Raising taxes on the rich," notes Klein, who adds, "though, as any budget wonk will tell you, it can't solve anything beyond a small fraction of our fiscal problem." It may, however, convince voters that someone is attempting to create a "shared sacrifice," instead of just jacking up taxes on middle-class households.
Chances are, however, that at some point, video will surface of some Democratic representative getting jeered at a town hall, and the discourse will return to the typical "who's up and who's down?" nonsense. (Hint: "Who's down" are millions of unemployed Americans, who will continue to make this a particularly dire time to be an elected official.)