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There’s no real substitute for a town hall meeting

Published: Fri, August 14, 2009 @ 12:00 a.m.

There’s no real substitute for a town hall meeting

No one is eager to submit themselves to verbal abuse or unwarranted disrespect.

And so it is understandable that some members of Congress — including the two men who represent the Mahoning Valley, Tim Ryan, D-17th, and Charlie Wilson, D-6th — are reluctant to conduct town hall meetings to discuss the health care reform measures working their way through Congress. Some meetings have turned ugly, with angry-faced opponents shouting at their representatives. Often, what they are shouting is at best anti-government slogans, at worst, baseless invective.

One exchange had the opponent rail against health reform, but when the congressman asked the speaker what he would like to see reformed, he was speechless until some in the audience began shouting hints. He picked up on one of the cues and finally responded, “tort reform.”

A member of the U.S. House or Senate who presents himself to his constituents and answers their questions about health-care or health-insurance reform should have a reasonable expectation that he is going to be treated with civility. When he sees that some of his colleagues have been treated more like interlopers at an anti-government demonstration, his first response might well be, “I don’t need this.”

And, indeed, that has effectively been the first response of Wilson and Ryan. They’ve said they will host some teleconferences with constituents and will take and answer questions. Wilson wrote an oped column, which this paper published, to set the record straight on some of the provisions. But, they said, they won’t host town hall meetings.

They should reconsider.

For one thing, it is unfair to deny people who truly want to be a part of an informative give-and-take over health care reform the opportunity to do so simply because some of the people who show up will act boorishly. For another, an accomplished politicians ought to be able to handle disruptive speakers, just as professional comedians must learn to disarm hecklers.

Showing how it’s done

In recent days, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill showed that it can be done. Specter patiently heard out his screaming detractors, and it was they who looked like anarchists and he who looked like the democrat. McCaskill demanded order, put two opponents of health-care reform in charge of picking the questions from a hat and answered questions to the best of her ability under trying circumstances.

Being open to questions and showing leadership will trump angry rhetoric — much of which is directed at cameras by people looking for their 15 seconds of fame — every time.

Any elected member of Congress must be prepared to discuss what is, at this point, an almost incomprehensibly complicated issue. Three House committees have reported out bills and any one of them is enough to boggle the mind. The title page of the 1026-page version approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee gives a hint of what’s to come. It is an “Amendment in the nature of a substitute to H.R. 3200” the page announces, but you can call it “America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009” for short.

People are going to be naturally suspicious of more than 1,000 pages of legalese that will define not only what kind of health care they might get in the future, but how about one dollar in every six is spent in the United States.

It is a congressman’s job — even if he can’t explain every jot and tittle off the top of his head — to reassure his constituents that what they will have at the end of the day is better for them, better for their employers and better for the country than what they have now.

That’s not going to happen in a teleconference. Congressmen: Book a hall, roll up your shirtsleeves (and gird your loins) and host an open meeting on health care before you head back to Washington at month’s end.

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