Friday, August 7, 2009

Thoughts on the 2009 Healthcare Reform Town Halls, From a Veteran of the 2005 Social Security Reform Town Halls

Cross posted from AEI's Enterprise Blog:

As members of Congress return home to their districts for the August recess, they will conduct more "town hall meetings" with their constituents. And if recent town halls are anything to judge by, these could be raucous affairs. (Click here for video, via the Weekly Standard's blog, of a meeting featuring Sen. Arlen Specter and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.) Individuals opposed to the Obama administration's proposed health reforms are voicing their opinions, often very loudly.

Yet, while I think it's somewhere written that Americans have a right to petition their government—oh, here it is—Democrats and much of the press are treating these protests skeptically. I have some experience in these kinds of things, as in 2005 I took part in a number of town hall meetings with President Bush discussing Social Security reform. These events were generally fairly smooth, at least inside the meetings, since like the recent events President Obama has conducted, attendees were by invitation. Town halls conducted by members of Congress, by contrast, are generally open to the public—and the public at large is far less easily controlled.

An exchange Tuesday morning on Fox News Channel with liberal commentator Bill Press sums up the left's judgment on these healthcare town halls. Press condemned the protesters, saying that "Americans want serious discussion" regarding healthcare reform. Yet, under the administration's original timeline, under which legislation would already have been passed by Congress, all discussion on health reform would have ended by now. The administration's push to pass reform before August was clearly geared toward suppressing discussion, not encouraging it.

Press then went on to demand that those who protest the Democratic health legislation produce their own reform plans:

The people who are there to protest—what are they for? Are they for the status quo? There's no other plan on the table. The Republicans haven't put any other plan on the table, so they're just against anything, or for the status quo, which I think most Americans accept is unacceptable.

As it stands, there are a number of alternative approaches on the table, from the Wyden-Bennett bipartisan plan, to Rep. Paul Ryan's comprehensive entitlement reform proposal, to Sen. Jim DeMint's plan for allowing sales of insurance across state lines.

But just as importantly, in 2005 Republicans pushed Democrats to put their own Social Security reforms on the table so the public might make a choice, but Democrats almost universally refused to do so. They argued that until personal accounts were taken off the table, they would refuse to even begin negotiations on reform. Given that, is there any reason Republicans should feel compelled to put forward their own health plans until the "public option"—the equivalent of personal accounts in the healthcare fight—is taken off the table?

Finally, Daily Kos editor Greg Dworkin writes:

The idea that hired, organized disruptors are playing 'ordinary spontaneous citizen' when they are planted to disrupt and that the media isn't always covering them as such is rather horrifying, as is the amount of money being spent to defeat health reform.

Poor thing. During the Social Security reform debate, I recall seeing busloads of paid union activists unloading at town hall meetings and millions of dollars in ads run by unions and AARP opposing Social Security reform. If Mr. Dworkin was equally outraged at the time, I can find no evidence of it. The difference between then and now is that we on the reform end of the Social Security debate simply took it for granted that unions and seniors groups would organize against us. In the health debate, conservative opposition is being generated far closer to the grassroots level, yet is being treated as a conspiracy.


Brett said...

Did opponents of social security privatization actually shut down any congressional constituent meetings in 2005? Few people object to protests as such. But people are understandably protective of forums where actual dialogue takes place. It seems to me that that protectiveness is a resource that democracies need to nourish.

Andrew G. Biggs said...

Brett, It's been a while so I don't remember whether any meetings were actually shut down (I also don't know whether/how many health town halls have been shut down). The videos I've seen of today's town halls show sometimes noisy -- but also pretty non-threatening -- folks letting their Congressmen know what they think. It's not uncommon for conservative speakers -- say, Tom Tancredo recently at the Univ. of N. Carolina, or Ann Coulter or the like -- to be shouted down entirely, so I don't think the left is in a position to get all worked up over this.

Brett said...

Andrew: our memories are in accord, then.

We appear to disagree on the whether there have been intentional disruptions of (as opposed to participation in) congressional meetings with constituents. I hope that we don't disagree on the principle that organized attempts to shut down such meetings would be a breach of democratic norms.

Bruce Webb said...

Andrew. CSSS of which you were a staffer took any fix via payroll tax off the table as part of President Bush's charter. For you to complain that opponents rejected solutions based on private accounts is a little disengenous. It wasn't our side that started the non-negotiable demands.

Andrew G. Biggs said...


Yes, the President rejected increases in the payroll tax rate -- but then, so did everyone else at the time. However, in addition to favoring benefit cuts for high earners, then-Secretary Snow refused to take off the table the idea of raising the tax max. So you had the administration all but offering to target both benefit cuts and tax increases on the rich, who are purportedly the Republican base. Still, the Democrats wouldn't even talk until accounts were off the table. It seems to me the administration went halfway in trying to get a compromise going.

Bruce Webb said...

Color me cynical.

The combination of benefit cuts/means testing/cap max increases as opposed to cross the board increases in FICA struck some of us as a covert attempt to play class warfare against the principle of Social Security as worker's insurance. But I have no desire to go Coberly tonight.

Peace Out.

Andrew G. Biggs said...

Bruce: We're not that smart. We were just looking to cut a deal.