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Health Care Town Halls "Gone Wild": Right-Wingers on the Rampage

Screaming constituents, protesters dragged out by the cops, and congressmen fearful for their safety mark the ugly scenes created by the far right.
 
 
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by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ian Millhiser and Nate Carlile.

With federal lawmakers returning home this week to begin their month-long recess, the far right is welcoming them with large, angry throngs at "town halls gone wild."

"Screaming constituents, protesters dragged out by the cops [and] congressmen fearful for their safety" have marked the ugly scenes that have become the rule in recent days, as normally respectful meetings between representatives and their constituents have been inundated with right-wing protesters focused on killing health care reform. Over the weekend, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) became one of the more widely publicized victims, when a mob of protesters chanting "just say no" to health care followed him out of an event. These encounters are being orchestrated by the same lobbyist-run groups -- Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks -- that brought together the tax day tea parties in April.

While trying to give the appearance of a "grassroots" uprising, the demonstrations are cover for a corporate-lobbyist engineered harassment strategy that encourages participants to "yell," "stand up and shout," and "rattle" elected officials in favor of reforming health care. Their goal -- recently outlined by an influential lobbyist as "delay" then "kill" -- is apparent: Having successfully delayed a vote until after the August recess, lobbyists are seizing on town halls to ambush lawmakers in an attempt to fool them and the greater public into thinking there is wide opposition to health care reform. Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs took a "hard line against the Tea-Party organized disruptions," labeling them a "Brooks Brothers Brigade," a reference to GOP staffers staging protests during the 2000 Florida recount.

The Memos:As with the tea parties, these town halls are "lessons in how political interests enlist human and technological resources to build political pressure while those responsible remain safely behind the curtain." Last week, The Progress Report obtained a leaked memo from a volunteer with Tea Party Patriots, a website sponsored by Americans for Prosperity (AFP) (led by a former associate of Jack Abramoff) and FreedomWorks (led by former Republican Majority Leader and current lobbyist Dick Armey). The memo detailed how town hall goers should infiltrate meetings and harass Democratic members of Congress. The memo said activists should "stand up and shout out and sit right back down" so the representative is "made to feel that a majority, and if not, a significant portion of at least the audience, opposes the socialist agenda of Washington." The overall goal, said the memo, is to "rattle" the elected official. Earlier this week, a FreedomWorks volunteer, who doubles as a Tea Party protester, published another memo that outlined a strategy "for his fellow activists -- a playbook of sorts for protesters seeking to disrupt and harass members of Congress during town hall forums in their districts."

A Broad Strategy:
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has endorsed the strategy of staged protests, telling Politico the days of civil town halls are now "over." In a memo to House Republicans, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) promised "anger" during the August recess: "Americans' anger will be on full display in the weeks ahead as Members of Congress leave Washington and travel the nation listening to the voices of their constituents." The published memos are similar to talking points being distributed by FreedomWorks that push an anti-health reform assault all summer. Patients United, a front group maintained by AFP, is busing people all over the country to protest health care reform. America's Health Insurance Plans, the trade group and lobbying juggernaut representing the health insurance industry, is also sending staffers to monitor town halls in 30 states. Meanwhile, Conservatives for Patients' Rights (CPR), led by disgraced hospital executive Rick Scott, is running a national campaign against a public health care option. Yesterday, the group took credit for "helping gin up the sometimes-rowdy outbursts targeting House Dems at town hall meetings around the country, raising questions about their spontaneity." Earlier in the week, a representative of CPR "sent an email to a list serve (called the Tea Party Patriots Health Care Reform Committee) containing a spreadsheet that lists over one hundred congressional town halls from late July into September." And last weekend, CPR announced it will send staff to "confront" lawmakers at town halls and then transition to negative ads.

Town Halls Gone Wild:
In one incident of right-wing outrage, protesters surrounded Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY), forcing police to escort him to his car. In another, anti-health care protesters hung up an effigy of Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-MD) outside his district office in Salisbury, MD. The city was the site of a recent symposium on the dangers of "government-run health care," sponsored by a group called "Patients First," a project of AFP. Two nights ago, Reps. Steve Kagen (D-WI) and Steve Driehaus (D-OH) had to face down angry mobs. Kagen, whose town hall was targeted by the Wisconsin chapter of AFP, was "repeatedly disrupted" by "incomprehensible" shrieks and shouts from conservatives. And just last night, Fox's local Houston affiliate reported that at a rowdy town hall hosted by Rep. Gene Green (D-TX), some attendees admitted "they don't live in the district." Still, Democrats are vowing not to let the disruptions stop health care reform. "I hope my colleagues won't fall for a sucker-punch like this," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) told The Progress Report. "These health insurance companies and people like them are trying to load these town halls for visual impact on television." Doggett agreed. After his town hall was ambushed he declared, "I am more committed than ever to win approval of legislation to offer more individual choice to access affordable health care. An effective public plan is essential to achieve that goal." And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) promised Democrats wouldn't waiver: "In spite of the loud, shrill voices trying to interrupt town hall meetings and just throw a monkey wrench into everything, we're going to continue to be positive and work hard."

The Progress Report is the daily policy newsletter of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. To receive The Progress Report in your email inbox everyday, click here.