Washington Matters


Town Halls: The Guns of August


Democratic lawmakers supporting White-House backed health care legislation are bracing for disruptions at town hall meetings this August recess by a vocal, organized and rehearsed minority bent on raising Cain and bringing down health care reform. The vocal few will win headlines, and millions will remain confused about how and if they will be affected by President Obama's most ambitious domestic policy goal. Health care overhaul advocates will come back to work in September having learned a lesson about selling anything so big and complicated.   

The first lesson may be to not sell something before its time, especially if you don't really know what you are selling. President Obama's last prime time news conference underscored this; his meandering performance was not the Ben Hur on the chariot moment he needed to rally public support. He delved into health care arcana as if it were a community organizing seminar that left more questions than clear answers. Many were left to wonder, and we're seeing some of that manifest itself today. 

Town-hall attendees, callers to congressional offices and participants in Internet chat rooms have reason to be worried about a sweeping overhaul in health care, which accounts for one-sixth of the economy and affects the livelihood of most every citizen, legal alien and many undocumented residents for that matter, too. Pretty much everyone has something to be wondering about.

So there's good reasons that town halls, which typically are light lifting for lawmakers, sparsely attended and barely ever covered, are a big deal this year. It's a good idea, too, at least in principle, that lawmakers get a little grilling on what they are about to do.

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We can all agree on the need for informed debate, but what counts as "informed" is an open question. It's hard to see how shouting someone down or burning him in effigy qualifies, and they shouldn't be allowed to steal the spotlight.

Undoubtedly, many will charge that the disruptions are being organized by conservative groups with huge email lists and funded in part by corporate health insurance providers or through closely related venues that want reform efforts stopped. Or charges that the real aim of town hall hell raisers is to build an arsenal of YouTube volleys against a health care reform they don't care to understand and to strike fear among Democrats going into the next election.

There'll be shouting matches for sure as more liberal-leaning constituents in favor of ambitious and universal reform start speaking out loudly and increasingly at town halls too, angry at both the vituperative opponents in the crowd and also at lawmakers who sound willing to compromise. Bet on it, even if the White House discourages these town hall versions of Health Care Gladiator. The YouTube viral video factor, which favors colorful exchange, must be factored in here. 

Here's the problem. The shouting matches don't accomplish anything, and the likelihood is that with all the ill will, nothing will be accomplished this month. Will one side win or lose? Not a chance. 

The debate can't help but be highly un-informed not only because of the emotion and distortions, but also because there is no consensus yet on the legislation nor has the White House been clear about what it wants. The president still would rather offer only guidelines and have an often fractious Congress work the details. Any wonder the public is scratching its head and town halls are filling up? 

Consider: The powerful Senate Finance Committee has put off action until mid-September on what aims to be a centrist-centric bill, the details of which are little known. Another Senate health panel has passed a bill that is largely seen as unworkable and far too costly. Three House Committees have approved separate bills. The House will end up melding a version together next month with Democratic leaders probably desperately whipping votes. The Senate will act on its own version, possibly using a controversial procedural tactic to ensure passage and outrage Republicans. Then both chambers will have to iron out differences in a joint conference committee that will be filled with behind-the-scenes intrigue and then the House and Senate will act on a final version.

No wonder we're not seeing an informed debate at the town halls of 2009. Even the rare congressmen who has studied any of the bills with care cannot accurately answer simple questions about what final health care reform will do.

All they can honestly say is that we'll have to wait and see, and that's obviously not acceptable to many town hall participants. They'd like to know. Not knowing the big particulars, such as whether any type of a public provider option will be included to force more competition or if employer-provided benefits will be taxed to help pay for the uninsured, makes some people susceptible to intentional falsehoods being spread, such as that bill will amount to a government takeover of health care or that Obama favors euthanasia.

Maybe it's good that some of the gunpowder will be spent this August, even if for naught and for the benefit of YouTube. It will put lawmakers on notice to be prepared for more-informed grilling later this fall as the true details of a final bill come to light, are debated and as some of the falsehoods fall to the wayside and become irrelevant in the town halls. Lawmakers then won't be able to hide behind the convenient answer that we'll all have to wait and see. Let's all wait and see.

 




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