Social anxiety is a serious medical condition; it’s an epidemic among Republicans on Capitol Hill.
With sweaty palms and staring eyes, Republican Senators and Representatives live in terror of facing their constituents. Stand back! Give them air! Republican lawmakers are having panic attacks because they might have to explain to their constituents how badly they will be screwed if the Senate Republican health care plan becomes law.
For a particularly serious case, consider Pat Toomey, junior Senator from my state, Pennsylvania. Toomey has not held a town hall since he was reelected to the US Senate last year. Toomey’s last town hall was in 2015.
Now comes word that Senator Toomey will hold a “town hall” on Wednesday at the studios of ABC27 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I place “town hall” in quotes for a reason. The event is invitation-only.
Toomey would tell you (if you ever got to speak with him) that he does hold town halls. Toomey says that he has held 48 “telephone town halls” over the past two and a half years. One such “tele-town hall” was held on February 16. Constituents only learned of the teleconference when a notice went up on Toomey’s Facebook page less than two hours before the call was to begin.
The advantage of a “tele” town hall over a real town hall should be obvious. Even with the widest bandwidth available it is still impossible to lob a tomato through a telephone.
Last week, Toomey debuted a more hands on way of interacting with constituents. Forty protestors were arrested in the corridor outside Toomey’s Washington, DC office. In fairness to the Senator, one of his aides told me that the Senator’s office had nothing to do with the arrests which were decided on by the Capitol Hill police. This does not change the fact that if Toomey would hold an in-person town hall his constituents would not have to get themselves arrested to get his attention.
In frustration, Democrats and progressives have taken to holding their own town halls without Toomey. Typical was a town hall I attended in February. Toomey was invited, but declined, so attendees addressed questions to a cardboard cutout of the Senator. Some Pennsylvanians want to run the cutout against Toomey in 2020 because they believe that the cutout would be more responsive to voters.
If the reason isn’t social anxiety, why is Toomey so intent on dodging his constituents? The reason couldn’t be cowardice, could it? Toomey was one of thirteen Republican Senators (all of them male, all of them White) handpicked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to draft the Senate version of the health care bill meant to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Only 17% of Americans approve of the resulting Senate health care bill, making the bill only slightly more popular than gonorrhea.
The public is right to distrust the bill. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has reported that the Senate plan will rob 22 million Americans of health insurance by 2026.
In addition, the Republican bill slashes Medicaid, which insures 20% of Americans, by $800 billion. The ACA’s Medicaid expansion will be phased out over three years beginning in 2021. The Republican bill replaces Medicaid’s federal matching funds with far less generous fixed block grants to the states. As the federal government pays less, states will have to pay more. That’s a burden fiscally-strapped states like Pennsylvania are ill-equipped to take on. If the Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) passes, expect thousands of people in Pennsylvania and other states to be dropped from the rolls of those receiving Medicaid. These may include 700,000 previously uninsured Pennsylvanians who only have health coverage thanks to the ACA’s Medicaid expansion.
Senator Pat Toomey, the People’s Friend, led the charge for massive Medicaid cuts. In the spirit of destroying the village in order to save it, Toomey justifies the cuts as necessary in order to make the Medicaid program “sustainable.”
Medicaid provides a lifeline for people in rural areas. These include lower-income Republican voters between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. This was Trump Country in 2016 and also Toomey’s base. These voters swallowed candidate Trump’s glib promises that he would bring them better, cheaper, and more comprehensive health coverage than Obamacare.
Losing health insurance will be a death sentence for many Americans, including the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. A new study from Drs. Steffi Woolhandler and David Himmelstein at Hunter College predicts 29,000 premature deaths each year from people losing health insurance under the Senate Republican plan.
Some spoilsport is bound to mention these facts about the Republican plan at a Toomey town hall. That’s what Toomey is afraid of. Someone else will mention that the Republican plan is a massive tax cut for the rich. The BCRA eliminates the taxes which made Obamacare affordable. The estimated $701 billion dollars in tax cuts to the wealthy over the next decade are made possible by slashing health care for the rest of us by $1 trillion. Finally, should Toomey ever hold an in-person, unscripted town hall we may expect some damn cynic to pipe up to suggest that Toomey is pushing this stinking carcass of a “health care” bill because of millions of dollars in campaign contributions Toomey has received from the insurance industry.
The Senate health care bill was drafted in secrecy and Republicans do not dare expose it to the light of public hearings. This is part of a larger Republican fear of democracy itself. (Don’t look so smug, Democrats; I will get to you another day.) Now the Trump Administration wants voting data on all Americans. The Administration says it needs the information in order to suppress voting—I mean, end voter fraud.
Obamacare is greatly flawed; it took tremendous ingenuity on the Republicans’ part to come up with a health plan that is even worse. But bad as it is, until we can enact single-payer health care, the ACA is the only hope of millions of Americans who will suffer—or die—if Obamacare is repealed. Pat Toomey has to stop dodging his constituents. Hey, Toomey! Take some Paxil (knock ‘em back with a stiff drink if you need to) and meet the voters you’re supposed to represent. It’s called democracy, Senator.