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The people are supposed to listen, not speak

Posted by Richard on August 14, 2009

If you're waiting to hear what the citizens of Montana and western Colorado have to say to their President about health care, don't hold your breath. What press secretary Robert Gibbs called a "conversation" in New Hampshire the other day was a decidedly one-sided conversation:

Much has been made of the chance for true, interactive democracy offered by the freewheeling town hall format that lawmakers are using in health care forums across the country. 

But what the White House is calling a "town hall meeting" does not quite follow in the tradition of the public-driven forums that sprouted centuries ago in New England. 

It's more like a press conference for the public. 

In an orderly fashion, selected members of the audience pose brief questions, and the president elaborates. 

And elaborates. And elaborates. 

A look at President Obama's health care "town hall" Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H., shows the president out-spoke his audience by a ratio of nearly 9-to-1. 

Here's the scorecard. 

Obama: 8,619 words. 

Audience: 1,186 words. 

That's hardly the kind of even-handed exchange of ideas that marked the town meetings of colonial America.

The President's attitude appears to be, "If I want your opinion, I'll give it to you."

Contrast that with what sounds like an excellent, productive town hall meeting by Indiana Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly: 

Two hours before Mr. Donnelly's scheduled arrival Wednesday in Kokoma, 75 people were lined up for 72 seats. By the meeting's start time of 6 p.m., the number had swelled to about 500. Mr. Donnelly's staff plunked speakers in the parking lot outside the meeting room and, microphone in hand, the lawmaker waded into the opinionated and skeptical crowd to field questions. With the exception of some brief asides about energy and the climate bill, the topic never strayed from the proposed health-care overhaul.

"I have not stated a position on this one way or another," Mr. Donnelly said as he introduced himself and welcomed constituents. He added that he favored some sort of cost-neutral overhaul that would cover people with pre-existing medical conditions. "I wanted to come home for a month and get a chance…to hear what everyone has to say," he said.

"To hear what everyone has to say" — what a refreshing and welcome thing for a representative of the people to do.

A number of people carried signs supporting an overhaul. But the majority of questioners voiced strong skepticism about handing more responsibility for health care to the government.

"I just want to know, when do these entitlements stop?" asked Ron Ammerman, a 35-year-old who has been laid off from his job as a splicer for AT&T Corp. He was the first to take the microphone and earned applause. "I'm responsible for myself and I'm not responsible for other people. I should get the fruits of my labor and I shouldn't have to divvy it up with other people."

Amen, Ammerman!

Questioners were chosen at random by Mr. Donnelly as he walked through a crowd of mostly older people, many of whom wore baseball hats and sunglasses to keep the setting sun out of their eyes. There were a few men in union T-shirts, but no obvious organized groups attempting to fill the meeting with questioners from one side or the other.

A few people spoke up in favor of revamping the current system, including one woman who warned of the power of private insurers.

Another woman said she was unable to wade through the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy to get her husband help before he died.

"Because of government paperwork he never got the assistance he needed," Lynnette Hammond said as she began to cry.

The anger that has settled around similar events in other states never hit Mr. Donnelly, who deftly parried complaints about too much government with questions about which entitlements the audience would be willing to sacrifice.

The anger didn't hit Rep. Donnelly because unlike so many of his peers, he was actually there to listen, and he gave his constituents every opportunity to be heard. He engaged in a true conversation.

"If [reform] doesn't work, it screws up an awful lot," he said. "But the other thing I want to ask is, of those with Medicare, how many want to give it up? That's why we need some kind of reform."

Aaron Williford, 35, a landscaper, said he was troubled by the amount of money the federal government was spending. "I see the federal government is like an individual that maxes out one credit card then goes out and gets another," he said.

Now that, folks, is democracy in action. Bravo, Rep. Donnelly! Good job!

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