Record crowds of supporters and opponents flooded town hall meetings throughout southeastern Wisconsin on Tuesday to hear Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan defend his plan to trim government savings — including controversial changes to the Medicare program.
In the district’s Democratic stronghold of Kenosha, at least 200 people were left outside once the 300-seat auditorium filled to capacity. The crowd largely opposed the Ryan plan, holding signs such as “Caution: Paul Ryan at Play,” “Leave Medicare Alone” or simply, “Save Medicare!”
At least two of Ryan’s four townhalls — in which he gave a brief PowerPoint presentation of the budget and took questions — filled to capacity, leaving some constituents and reporters outside. Ryan said the crowds were larger than those during the infamous August 2009 health care town hall sessions.
A town hall meeting held in Orlando by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster degenerated into bedlam Tuesday, with members of the crowd shouting down the freshman Republican congressman and yelling at one another.
It was the last of a series of town hall meetings Webster has hosted during Congress' spring recess, which ends Monday. While the others were civil and largely uneventful, the 300 people at Tuesday's meeting were so raucous they were scolded by a police officer to act "like grown people." Webster tried to go over a series of charts showing growing levels of federal spending and debt, and the reason he supports the federal budget plan put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. But he was interrupted at every turn by shouts from his critics, including members of progressive groups such as Moveon.org and Organize Now.
Boos and shouts of "liar" were mixed with angry accusations that Ryan's plan to change Medicare would leave those now under 55 without health insurance in their retirement, calls to eliminate the tax cuts first put in place by former President Bush and the need to raise corporate taxes rather than cut entitlement programs.
Missing from the reporting of these stories is the fact that much of these protests are coordinated by public relations firms and lobbyists who have a stake in opposing President Obama’s reforms.
The lobbyist-run groups Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, which orchestrated the anti-Obama tea parties earlier this year, are now pursuing an aggressive strategy to create an image of mass public opposition to health care and clean energy reform. A leaked memo from Bob MacGuffie, a volunteer with the FreedomWorks website Tea Party Patriots, details how members should be infiltrating town halls and harassing Democratic members of Congress:
– Artificially Inflate Your Numbers: “Spread out in the hall and try to be in the front half. The objective is to put the Rep on the defensive with your questions and follow-up. The Rep should be made to feel that a majority, and if not, a significant portion of at least the audience, opposes the socialist agenda of Washington.”
– Be Disruptive Early And Often: “You need to rock-the-boat early in the Rep’s presentation, Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early.”
– Try To “Rattle Him,” Not Have An Intelligent Debate: “The goal is to rattle him, get him off his prepared script and agenda. If he says something outrageous, stand up and shout out and sit right back down. Look for these opportunities before he even takes questions.”
The memo above also resembles the talking points being distributed by FreedomWorks for pushing an anti-health reform assault all summer. Patients United, a front group maintained by Americans for Prosperity, is currently busing people all over the country for more protests against Democratic members. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), chairman of the NRCC, has endorsed the strategy, telling the Politico the days of civil town halls are now “over.”