As Congress returns to work this week, it won’t take long to see what lessons the Members have learned from the often-stormy town hall meetings during the August recess. Some hid from their constituents by not holding local meetings at all or by limiting them to telephone, online or controlled-access assemblies. But those with political courage, regardless of geography or party affiliation, came face to face with two strong emotions: anger and fear. Although health care reform may have been the precipitating factor, the wide extent of both emotions suggests that they are not limited to that issue alone.[IMGCAP(1)]
Some in the Democratic leadership, such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), showed a determination to ignore these reactions and hold firm to the pre-recess strategy of exercising their majority as a pure power play. Others, such as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), expressed appreciation to the unprecedented numbers of informed and involved citizens who came out to town halls as indicative of democracy in action, and demonstrated willingness to compromise as a result.
The anger appeared to have been triggered by the failure of many Members of Congress to read the text of the health care legislation or the stimulus and cap-and-trade legislation which preceded it, along with the mismanagement of even a simple government programs like Cash for Clunkers.
Chants of “Read the bill!—, expressing anger at the failure of many Members to read all 1,017 pages of H.R. 3200, rang out at the Hoyer meeting, prompting a defensive reaction from the usually self-assured Majority Leader that he had in fact done so. Hoyer then painted himself into a corner when he pledged not to support any health care reform bill that would either add to the deficit or raise taxes.
Nate Gingrich of Freeburg, Pa., angrily asked Democratic Rep. Christopher Carney, “If the government couldn’t predict the revenues they needed for Cash for Clunkers, how are they ever going to run health care?—
The meetings provided for many a chance to express rage that had been lurking beneath the surface since Congress passed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program last year, followed earlier this year by the $787 billion stimulus bill, which the president and Democrats unilaterally rammed through Congress. Members of Congress around the country found themselves excoriated by scores of citizens angry over the $1 trillion health care bill’s possible effect on the exploding national debt and without answers on how it would be financed. Fiscal conservatism seems to be back and broadly supported across the country, in spite of what many liberals thought in the wake of the 2008 election.
The fears appeared to be rooted in loss of control over the choice of doctors, the possibility of inappropriate intrusion by government into highly personal life decisions and financial insecurity about the long-term effects of trillions of dollars in deficit spending over the last year on the financial system bailout, the government takeover of Chrysler and General Motors and the stimulus bill.
A comment made by a participant in a town hall meeting sponsored by Hoyer in southern Maryland evidenced a more general fear over governmental intrusion: “We want the government out of our business,— April Burke of Mechanicsville, Md., told Hoyer, which then prompted a standing ovation by the 1,700 people who attended.
Many town hall participants also expressed fears that the proposed health care reform legislation represents erosion of the limited government that the framers of the Constitution intended ─ noting that the framers did not provide a right to health care or make any institutional provision for the federal government to run health care.
Some Democrats, such as Pelosi and Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), responded by ridiculing the town hall protesters as “un-American— or “not representative of the majority.— However, recent polls have shown that there is widespread popular support for the town hall protesters. This places those who dismissed the protestors in political danger if they continue to ignore the sentiments that they faced.
Such widespread anger and fear cannot be adequately addressed merely by dropping the public insurance option and trimming back the overall scope of proposed health care reform. It calls for something that goes beyond token bipartisanship, a fresh approach that might be better expressed as transpartisanship — a commitment to work more broadly in the public interest and less narrowly in the two parties’ respective partisan interests than anything we have seen in Congress for years. That does not mean Democrats grudgingly accepting a handful of Republican amendments in order to pick up a few GOP votes. It means a complete reboot of the legislative process, so that it is transpartisan from the start. Anything less risks political suicide by Democrats on a scale at least equaling their dramatic losses in 1994, the last time that their apparently solid majority misjudged widespread public sentiment.
Colin Hanna is president of Let Freedom Ring.