Town-Hall Trickery
It Wasn't "Sabotage" When the Democrats Did It

During the August congressional recess, elected officials conduct "town hall" meetings to gauge their constituents' opinions on a range of issues. This month, the dominant subject is health-care reform--and Democratic lawmakers aren't happy about what they're hearing. Democrats and their allies in the press are complaining about unruly members of the public yelling their opposition to the Obama administration's health plans. The Left is now treating public protest as--to use Senate majority leader Harry Reid's word--"sabotage" of the democratic process. They seem to forget how their own side acts when confronted with a policy it opposes. The Social Security reform debate of 2005 provides some welcome reminders.

Back in 2005, I attended a number of town-hall meetings on Social Security reform, appearing on stage with President Bush at several events and traveling to a number of other meetings sponsored by the White House and by members of Congress. While President Bush's town-hall meetings--like those held today by President Obama--were orderly, at least inside the buildings, things would sometimes get rowdy outside the White House events and at the less-scripted congressional town halls.

The Left now acts as if this never happened. For instance, in a recent television appearance, liberal commentator Bill Press argued that--rather than noisy disagreement--"Americans want discussion" on health-care reform. Who could disagree with that sentiment--except, perhaps, the Obama administration, which pushed Congress to rush through legislation by early August? This timeline was clearly aimed at preempting discussion and presenting the public with a "done deal" on health reform. As one protester put it, the president spent more time choosing a dog than he did discussing health-care reform.

Likewise, Mr. Press complained that opponents hadn't put their own reform plans on the table. "The people who are there to protest--what are they for? Are they for the status quo? The Republicans haven't put any other plan on the table." But did congressional Democrats offer their own alternative to President Bush's 2005 Social Security plan? When a fellow Democrat asked Rep. Nancy Pelosi when their party would offer its own Social Security plan, her answer was "Never. Is that soon enough for you?" Democrats would not even negotiate until personal retirement accounts were taken off the table. Why should Republicans act differently today, regarding the "public option"?

Yet even so, Press is wrong: Republicans have put several health reforms on the table, from the bipartisan plan sponsored by Sens. Robert Bennett (R., Utah) and Ron Wyden (D., Ore), to Rep. Paul Ryan's (R., Wisc.) comprehensive entitlement- and tax-reform plan, to Sen. Jim DeMint's (R., S.C.) plan to allow consumers to purchase health insurance across state lines. These Republican plans would do more to "bend the cost curve" than congressional Democrats' proposals, all of which push costs in the wrong direction.

Perhaps the richest complaint of all comes from Daily Kos editor Greg Dworkin, who grumbles, "I live in New England, where town halls are a way of life. 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."

Oh, please. In 2005, busloads of union members swarmed Social Security events, and these folks weren't doing it on a volunteer basis either. Labor unions and the AARP financed millions of dollars in ads attacking Bush's Social Security plans. I don't recall liberals--or the press, for that matter--being particularly upset at the time. And, to be honest, neither were reformers: We simply took it for granted that the Left would agitate against reform, as is their right.

Last I checked, the right to protest government policies--to "petition the Government for a redress of grievances," as the First Amendment quaintly puts it--was still protected. It remains standard operating procedure on the Left to shout down conservative speakers. Yet on health care, these same activists complain of "mobs," even if from television coverage protesters appear to be armed with walkers rather than pitchforks. Democrats until recently considered dissent "patriotic." But it seems that's only when they are doing the dissenting.

Andrew G. Biggs is a resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author


Andrew G.
  • Andrew G. Biggs is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Social Security reform, state and local government pensions, and public sector pay and benefits.

    Before joining AEI, Biggs was the principal deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA), where he oversaw SSA’s policy research efforts. In 2005, as an associate director of the White House National Economic Council, he worked on Social Security reform. In 2001, he joined the staff of the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security. Biggs has been interviewed on radio and television as an expert on retirement issues and on public vs. private sector compensation. He has published widely in academic publications as well as in daily newspapers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. He has also testified before Congress on numerous occasions. In 2013, the Society of Actuaries appointed Biggs co-vice chair of a blue ribbon panel tasked with analyzing the causes of underfunding in public pension plans and how governments can securely fund plans in the future.

    Biggs holds a bachelor’s degree from Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland, master’s degrees from Cambridge University and the University of London, and a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics.

  • Phone: 202-862-5841
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    Phone: 202-862-5920

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