Town hall meetings are under the microscope this August as some members of Congress find hostile constituents waiting on their return from Washington, D.C.
Liberals and conservatives argue whether the town halls represent the general public mood or ginned-up outrage. In truth, they may be a little of both. Town halls are many things: participatory democracy, political theater and off-season campaigning.
What they are not, however, is a particularly good place to get information.
This summer’s hot topic is health care reform, brought on by congressional consideration of a bill that fills more than 1,000 pages and is so vague that people are understandably confused and concerned. But the best way to clear up that confusion isn’t always by asking about a complicated subject while a dozen or so other people wait anxiously in line behind you and 400 or more of your neighbors cheer or boo.
Then there’s the other problem: Sometimes people say things that just aren’t true, and members of Congress either don’t bother to correct them or say other incorrect things.
Take Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ town hall meeting in Colville earlier this month. At one point, a very upset constituent from Loon Lake demanded to know why a big local road construction project on U.S. Highway 395 went to a King County company when Stevens County has 16 percent unemployment. Her impassioned plea prompted applause from the audience, particularly when she complained of “King County getting all our money.”
“We need to do a better job when it comes to road projects,” McMorris Rodgers said. “It’s common sense that a local contractor would get those jobs. But as you know, government does not operate, oftentimes, using common sense.”
That sympathetic response prompted a fair amount of clapping, some cheers and at least one “Amen.” But it wasn’t particularly informative – and was arguably misleading.
First, a King County company did not win a contract on U.S. 395, according to state and city officials. That big road resurfacing project – which traps anyone traveling between Spokane and Colville – is divided between Central Washington Asphalt, from Grant County, and Knife River, a national company with a local office in Colville and a regional office in Post Falls.
It’s unrealistic to expect a member of Congress to have road construction contract details on the tip of her tongue. But McMorris Rodgers’ common-sense approach isn’t really common sense, either.
Road construction and other government contracts go to the lowest bidder to protect taxpayers. Awarding them to a local company, simply because it is local, is something government got away from – in part to avoid the days when some county commissioner’s uncle’s neighbor’s cousin got the contract without concern for what it cost.
Explaining that fairly common principle of government probably would not have received applause, let alone an “Amen.” But it would have shed some light on the situation.
At another point, McMorris Rodgers worried with her constituents about the federal government setting up a public option health plan. When Washington state set up the Basic Health plan, she said, it started out simple but added more mandates each year. Now only three companies even offer health insurance in the state, she said.
“Every plan has to offer maternity, every plan now offers the chiropractic, mental health, even hair transplants if I remember correctly,” she said. That last got a few laughs from the crowd.
It is funny, but it’s not true. Or to be charitable, she’s not remembering correctly.
Basic Health does not cover hair transplants, said Dave Wasser of the state Health Care Authority. The closest it comes is covering a prescription drug for some cancer patients to help regrow hair after chemotherapy. Most other health insurance plans in Washington don’t cover hair transplants or similar cosmetic surgery, either.
And it’s not true that the state only has three companies offering health insurance. It has 20 insurance companies and five Health Maintenance Organizations, the insurance commissioner’s office reports – about twice the number available 10 years ago. It’s true that only three of them are among the nation’s biggest health insurers, but competition has actually grown, not shrunk, in the past decade.
Tracking down the information for this column took several days and more than a dozen phone calls – not something a politician can do in front of a town hall meeting. But if one is interested in providing light rather than heat, things sometimes take time.