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Economy

Main Street Rage: Americans Protest Awful GOP Budget Plan at Town Halls Around the Country

This week, town hall anger went from a few isolated incidents to a daily deluge of passion and temper from Americans frustrated with their out-of-touch representatives.

At town hall events across the country, Americans are confronting members of Congress who voted for the House Republicans' radical budget, which effectively ends Medicare, slashes Medicaid, hacks away at domestic spending, and extends tax breaks for the wealthy. The entire House GOP caucus except for four lawmakers voted for Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-WI) budget earlier this month, claiming a mandate from the November elections to drastically reduce domestic spending. But Republicans went beyond any semblance of responsible budget tightening to a radical deconstruction of core pillars of the health, safety, and security of the country. Recent polls show Americans are firmly opposed to Ryan's budget proposal, with over 70 percent of Republicans opposing cuts to Medicare, while over 80 percent of Americans overall disapprove of cuts to the social safety net program. And Americans are clearly demonstrating their displeasure with their GOP lawmakers, who are in their home districts for this month on recess from Congress. Last week, as lawmakers began holding town hall sessions in their districts, a number of Washington commentators wondered, "If the Ryan budget is so unpopular, where are the town-hall meltdowns?" This week, in the Washington commentariat got their answer as town hall anger went from a few isolated incidents to a daily deluge of passion and temper from Americans frustrated with their out-of-touch representatives. The town halls, like the opposition to the GOP budget more generally, were slow to begin in part because Ryan was so quick to act. While President Obama and congressional Democrats allowed for over a year of debate, study, and discussion on their health care reform law, House Republicans unveiled and voted on their plan to radically transform Medicare in a matter of weeks, giving opponents almost no time to mobilize against it or educate Americans about its effects. Moreover, those opposed to Ryan's plan don't have the constant cheerleading of right-wing talk radio and Fox News, which directly helped organize and promote the 2009 town halls. Nonetheless, as part of what the Progress Report has dubbed a Main Street Movement of average Americans upset that conservatives want to cut social services and public investment for everyday people while lavishing tax breaks on the wealthy and corporations, Americans are standing up to their lawmakers on their own.

MEDICARE: Many of the town hall protests this month have targeted freshmen Republicans from swing districts who were voted into office in last November's GOP wave. While voters may have wanted to send a message to Washington by electing a Republican, they have been dismayed by how radically right-wing their new congressmen have turned out to be. One of the first documented town hall protests last week was at a stop of freshman Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA). During the campaign, Meehan assured his future constituents that he wouldn't vote for Ryan's "agenda," but once in office, he did just that. "Meehan was asked about entitlement reform and Medicare at nearly every town hall he went to" last week, with constituents' anger visible. By the weekend, freshmen Reps. Robert Dold (R-IL), Charlie Bass (R-NH), Sean Duffy (R-WI), and Lou Barletta (R-PA) had all faced constituent anger of their own over the GOP's Medicare privatization plan. At a town hall in Hillsborough, NH, the first six questions Bass faced from constituents were about his vote to privatize Medicare. One attendee pointed out that what the Republicans are doing is pursuing a "divide and conquer"strategy by eliminating Medicare for future generations while keeping it for current seniors. At a town hall in Shell Late, WI, Duffy got into a heated exchange with constituents when he insisted that Ryan's plan does not effectively replace Medicare with a voucher system, but attendees repeatedly corrected him. Later, Duffy got huffy; frustrated by his constituents' questions about his presentation, he told attendees, "When you have your town hall you can stand up and give your presentation." Yesterday, constituent anger reached a boiling point at a town hall in Orlando for freshman Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) when "bedlam" erupted as constituents angrily peppered him with questions about his vote for privatizing Medicare. Webster tried to avoid answering many of the questions, and eventually, conservative hecklers fired back at those trying to hold Webster accountable. Police officers flanked Webster and had to tell the crowd to quite down.  

TAXES: The other main theme constituents have been pressing their lawmakers on this month is tax fairness. Ryan's budget would preserve the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent of Americans while cutting corporate tax rates -- a proposal even Ryan's own constituents are not happy about. During a town hall meeting in Milton, WI, last week, a constituent who described himself as a "lifelong conservative" asked Ryan about the effects of growing income inequality in our nation. The constituent noted that huge income disparities contributed to the Great Depression and the Great Recession, and thus wanted to know why the congressman was "fighting to not let the tax breaks for the wealthy expire." Ryan responded by saying, "we do tax the top," eliciting a a chorus of boos and grumbling from attendees. Yesterday, Ryan faced chants of "Ryan stop lying!" at a town hall in Kenosha, WI, which drew a capacity crowd inside and over a 100 protesters outside. "Do not renew the Bush tax credit for the wealthy," one man demanded. Meanwhile, at a town hall in Salem, NY, Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) faced similar outbursts. In answering a question, Gibson said that Americans pay higher taxes because "here are people in the country that are not paying taxes because they're illegal [immigrants]." At this point, a town hall attendee cried out, "You mean like GE?!" forcing the congressman to say that he agreed that the company needs to pay its fair share. Audience members at Dold's town hall said they "don’t believe chopping 10 percentage points off the highest corporate tax rate will create jobs." At Duffy's town hall, one attendee said she agrees with Ryan's concerns about the deficit and "that’s why we have to raise taxes on the rich, and raise taxes on the corporations who have never been richer than they have now. And you guys just cut their taxes again." "Oh yeah!" another constituent responded.

'EVERY RIGHT TO SPEAK': During the 2009 town halls, which mostly targeted Democrats, Republican lawmakers repeatedly praised tea party activists for their disruptions at town halls, saying it was important to let them have their voices heard. But now that they're on the receiving end of constituents' anger, it's unclear how much Republicans will embrace this democratic process. Ryan abruptly left a town hall yesterday ahead of schedule, citing "security concerns" from hecklers. But Ryan went through with a town hall in 2009 despite credible threats against union members at the event. At a town hall in 2009, when a heckler disrupted Ryan and promoted boos from other audience members, Ryan told the crowd, "She has every right to talk, every right to speak." In an interview with Fox News at the time, Ryan said Obama's policies had driven people to the town halls, which he praised as a grass roots outpouring of "people up in arms" about bad policies. "[T]his is amazing," Ryan told a largely supportive town hall in Aug. 2009. Meanwhile, conservatives are trying to drown out progressives at today's town halls, with American Action Network -- a relatively new conservative front group founded by a group of Wall Street bankers -- loading up conservative activists with softball questions and talking points to bolster Republican lawmakers on the Ryan plan.

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