I understand wanting to yell at House members and senators, especially the Class of '09. They seem hell-bent on drafting trillion-dollar, societal-changing,
War and Peace
-length legislation and passing it into law before anyone can read it. Look at the stimulus bill, cap and trade, health-care reform.
And the anger isn't just about them voting with fingers crossed, hoping everything works out. They don't even pretend to care. Here's John Conyers (D., Mich.) at a National Press Club luncheon last month:
"What good is reading the bill if it's a thousand pages and you don't have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?"
Take a moment to ponder the arrogance and irresponsibility of the statement. Makes you want to yell, doesn't it?
Now add on the how-dare-you hissy fits in response to the anger expressed at town hall meetings.
Rep. Baron Hill (D., Ind.) talks about "political terrorists." John Dingell (D., Mich.) likens those who dare challenge him to "Ku Klux Klan folks and white supremacists." Brian Baird (D., Wash.) sees echoes of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in the protests. The Democratic National Committee, among others, invoked the N word: Nazis.
The Democratic bosses in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, wrote in USA Today last week that "drowning out opposing views is simply un-American." (Irony alert: Now they want civil discourse. While trying to ram a bill through before the recess, they didn't want any discourse, especially with their colleagues across the aisle.)
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.) labeled protesters' behavior "un-American and disrespectful." She would later retract the "un-American" part. Perhaps someone on Lincoln's staff showed her a copy of the Bill of Rights, which - and here I paraphrase - grants citizens the right to petition their government, even if loud or angry petitioners cause lawmakers to tremble and wet themselves.
The White House seemed torn.
On Monday, deputy press secretary Bill Burton said, "I think there's actually a pretty long tradition of people shouting at politicians in America."
He should pass that up the chain of command, as the president was saying on Aug. 6 at a party fund-raiser in Virginia: "But I don't want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them to get out of the way. ..."
Apparently he's not alone in such thinking. That same day, a black conservative activist, Kenneth Gladney, reported being attacked - not for talking but for handing out flyers - at a town hall meeting sponsored by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D., Mo.). Gladney said he was called the N word (not Nazi) and kicked and beaten. Six people were arrested, including some who blamed the victim for the fight. Gladney was not arrested.
"It just seems there's no freedom of speech without being attacked," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
There are many more town halls to go, and plenty of people who want to express their displeasure with Congress. But the point has been made: Too many lawmakers don't care what constituents think about spending, health care, or other issues.
The yelling can continue. It's satisfying and can win you 15 seconds of YouTube fame. But be careful that shouting matches over who's an American or a Nazi, or who made the mess and who should get out of the way, don't drown out legitimate concerns and questions.
What will proposed changes do to your health-care plan, now and in the future?
What will this cost? Individuals? States? The nation?
How can adding people to the health-insurance rolls cut costs, as Obama keeps promising?
What changes will Medicare recipients face?
Are there alternatives to the various Democratic proposals?
The answer to most of the above is, we don't know, and that's cause for concern. But there are alternatives. Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Sen. (Dr.) Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) have ideas about covering the uninsured without spending a trillion dollars or adding to the deficit. Both are smart and civil discoursers. Since Pelosi and Hoyer won't consult with them, perhaps Obama should invite them over for a beer.
As for the protesters, what's next? Does the passion move beyond town halls to back an alternative, focus on removing arrogant lawmakers, or just wither away? I'd suggest following the example of Howard Dean, 2004's angry presidential candidate. Outrage got him so far but eventually drowned out the message and even made him a bit of a joke. He got the last laugh, however, strategically using that anger as head of the Democratic National Committee, and helping rout Republicans in two straight elections.