Town-hall meetings: facing voter wrath on healthcare
Healthcare forums evoked anger, but there was constructive dialogue, too.
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"I want my voice to be heard about healthcare," said Kay Dallavalle, an accountant and "proud member of the angry mob," outside an Aug. 12 town meeting in Hagerstown with Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D) of Maryland.
"If the [plan] is as effective as the postal service and as compassionate as the IRS, we're in for a nice time," she quipped. "They haven't read the bill."
In fact, there is no bill. Senator Cardin begins his town meetings by reminding people that there are three House versions of a bill, one Senate draft, and another Senate version in the works.
This legislative limbo has made it tough for lawmakers, especially Democrats, to defend a strategy that has yet to take final shape.
"Why does the government want to rush into a bill when many don't want it," asked Ingrid from Smithsburg, to cheers from a largely conservative crowd. "Please take the time to get it right."
"I want to underscore this point," said Cardin, straining to be heard. "The problems are going to continue to grow. We need to move forward. The status quo is unacceptable.
A chance to engage
Fearing disruption by outside groups, some lawmakers opted out of public meetings on healthcare altogether. But for hardy members of Congress – or those in especially safe districts – the mob scenes also provided an opportunity to engage voters.
"It's important to keep your focus on the question and not let them rattle you," says Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, who faced some 3,000 people at a town-hall meeting on Aug. 11 that included shouts of "liar, liar, pants on fire!"
He urges House colleagues not to be discouraged from doing public events "just because you have some rabble-rousers out there."
The key, he says, is giving constituents a chance both to ask questions and make statements, regardless of whether they are for or against the Democrats' version of healthcare reform.
"I have found that I do get constructive input on concerns that people have with the reform," he adds, citing as an example public concerns over the privacy of medical records in government hands. "And you also give people an opportunity to be heard."
"What you saw over the summer was a huge ramping up by the insurance industry to quickly hire political consultants and lobbyists all over the country, not just in DC, to spend millions in television, radio, local papers around the state," says Michael Huttner, founder and CEO of ProgressNow and author of the new book, "50 Ways to Help Obama Change America."
But, he adds that, "at many of these town-hall meetings, you saw groups of three or four people talking to each other on what should be the best policies going forward. As much as the media has focused on the antagonism, it's been a very healthy conversation."