You'd never know it from watching the news, but there has been some actual town-hall-style dialogue about the complicated medical, economic and policy issues surrounding healthcare reform.
When Congressman Emanuel Cleaver tried to hold one of his regular meetings with constituents last week, protesters converged on the Lee's Summit coffeehouse with a vengeance, demanding that their voices be heard. Why do we think the loudmouth contingent might not be all that happy to know that actually, Cleaver had already held a town hall meeting in which thousands of people had engaged in an hour of civil Q&A with the congressman on this very issue? Maybe because that meeting didn't accommodate any made-for-TV shouting.
On Thursday, August 6, Cleaver and his staff conducted a giant conference call with 5th District constituents. Cleaver estimates that 5,000 people participated.
Cleaver and his staff hired a service that randomly contacted 40,000 people in his district on the afternoon of August 6, letting them know they'd be getting another call at 7 that night. "We let them know we would be conducting a town hall meeting and were interested in hearing their thoughts and concerns," Cleaver says.
It turned out, Cleaver says, "to be a very productive time with constituents. We took questions from a huge number of people." Everyone on the line could hear the questioner and Cleaver's response. "The questions were all presented in a very civil manner. They were not softballs by any means."
Though much attention has been focused on House Bill 3200, Cleaver emphasizes that there are three different plans in three different House committees, and one bill in a Senate committee, and the Senate hasn't had any hearings. "People thought there was a well-designed bill moving through Congress and headed toward the president's signature," Cleaver says, and they were relieved to learn otherwise. Still, when someone asked a question about the legislation that does exist, Cleaver says, "I would say, I appreciate the question you just asked about the low number of medical professions, but if you'll turn to page 62, we talk about scholarship assistance for nurses and physicians. Or if they said, 'There's a death panel,' I'd say, 'If you'll turn to page 86, we have a sentence that people have distorted to frighten you and I'd read it. So we always told them the page where they could find the issue they were raising."
What he found most telling, Cleaver says, is that after offering an answer, "except for one or two calls, there was usually silence instead of, 'Well, I think this is crazy.' We chose to interpret that as people saying, 'Oh. OK. I get it.'"
That's not to say there aren't serious issues that have to be worked out. "There are some legitimate questions that even a supporter of reform such as myself must raise," Cleaver says. "One of the questions is the cost, and some of the assumptions we have made with regard to the cost. We need to get some clearer data on the cost of this program. I also think we have to tell people the cost of not doing anything."
But what he learned more than anything else, Cleaver says, is that not everyone is being misled by Republican operatives. "Some of the people who raised questions at the tele-town-hall meeting were just everyday people. They'd say, 'Look, I'm just scared. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't want you to take my insurance.' I'd say, 'If you have insurance and are satisfied with that insurance, you'll have a chance to keep it.' They'd say, 'You mean you're not going to force me to get a government insurance company?' And I'd say no. And they'd say, 'Well, they've been telling us that the government was going to take over the insurance companies.' I said, 'No, ma'am, that's not in the language of the reports as they come out of committees."
Cleaver says reformers are losing the argument "not because we don't think our argument is solid or sound, but because when you have an entire television network working against you, and in some instances refusing to correct not just bad information but intentionally misleading information -- I'm not saying they're giving it out, but they're allowing it to stand. I think that's very difficult to overcome."
Nor does it help that the president "miscalculated" by setting an arbitrary date to pass reform, Cleaver says. "That never should have been done, because it gave the impression to the nation, including solid Democrats, that we are going to rush the legislation through without strong debate or consideration." Cleaver noted that his own criticism of the president comes from "someone who is so much a supporter that I signed a letter saying that I can't support a bill that doesn't have a public plan."
Cleaver says he understands "the anger that precipitated the name-calling, goon squads and rent-a-mob kind of thing. I think we have to redesign the way we try to win people over."
He and his Kansas colleague, U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, get another chance on KCUR's "Up to Date" at 11 a.m. on Tuesday.