Medicare Fights at Town Halls Are Healthcare Fight Replay

Lawmakers have been holding town hall meetings to discuss the future of the program.

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The Medicare fight is looking like the healthcare overhaul battles all over again, with angry people (constituents, maybe, but who knows?) screaming at members of Congress who have been holding town hall meetings to discuss the future of the program.

There are good reasons to question members of Congress about Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan, which would effectively eliminate Medicare for those of us now younger than 55. And there were good reasons for people to demand explanations of how the healthcare law would work, especially since Democrats were doing such a poor job of debunking the great deal of misinformation being disseminated about the plan.

But there are legitimate questions, too, to be asked of the people who show up at these town hall meetings: Did no one ever teach you how to behave in public? And when you voted for change—be it for Obama or for the antigovernment, slash-the-budget members of Congress elected last fall—what did you expect would happen? [ See editorial cartoons about the budget and deficit.]

Obama campaigned on providing a universal healthcare plan. Did you think he wouldn’t then try to do it? And the new members of the GOP majority in the House vowed to slice away at federal spending. Did you think they wouldn’t try to do that, too?

The attitude of the town hall attendees is similar to that of the referendum voters in California, so brilliantly explained in this week’s Economist. They’ll vote angrily for some broad issue—be it cutting taxes or maintaining a certain level of school spending—but it doesn’t really occur to them that those sorts of policies have consequences. Pass a proposition that makes it impossible to raise property taxes if you like, but don’t be so baffled when there’s less money for schools, which are largely paid for with property taxes. [Vote now: Should Ryan's budget plan become law?]

And here’s another lesson: Screaming is not the way to resolve budget and policy questions. While there is a certain rough justice for Republican lawmakers who encouraged the rabble-rousers at the healthcare forums—and who are now being verbally assaulted at Medicare town hall meetings—it’s still not an acceptable way for adults to behave.

Consider this account, in the Orlando Sentinel, of what new GOP Rep. Daniel Webster experienced:

Boos and shouts of “liar” were mixed with angry accusations that Ryan’s plan to change Medicare would leave those now under 55 without health insurance in their retirement, calls to eliminate the tax cuts first put in place by former President Bush and the need to raise corporate taxes rather than cut entitlement programs.

Others in the crowd began yelling at Webster’s critics to quiet down, at one point with the chant “Let him talk!” But the meeting frequently devolved into multiple arguments — some of them heated — between members of audience.

When one man who said he was a veteran yelled that he wanted to know why Webster was cutting Medicare and veterans’ benefits, his answer came from the audience instead. “We can’t afford it, you moron!” a red-faced man screamed.

Two Orlando police officers moved to the front of the room and flanked Webster, and pleaded for decorum when the congressman could no longer be heard. “It’s not going to be solved by yelling and screaming and hollering,” the officer said. “Let’s conduct ourselves like grown people.”

Best idea in years.