At a town hall in Iowa Falls, Iowa this morning, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) faced a packed room of constituents demanding answers on questions ranging from immigration to Obamacare.
In one of a few standout moments, an older man confronted Grassley over his support of repealing Obamacare instead of working to fix the existing law.
“I’m on Obamacare. If it wasn’t for Obamacare, we wouldn’t be able to afford insurance,” Chris Petersen, an Iowa pig farmer, told his Senator. “Don’t repeal Obamacare, improve it!” he said. The crowd broke out in cheers.
Angry constituents confront Chuck Grassley in Iowa: “If it wasn’t for Obamacare, we wouldn’t be able to afford insurance!” pic.twitter.com/vrbhbOiBMM
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) February 21, 2017
It was a full-circle moment for Grassley and health care.
In 2009, while Grassley was negotiating with Democrats over what would become the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) he came back to Iowa and faced a very different crowd in town halls — the beginnings of the Tea Party, who were outraged by the idea of “government run” health care.
After the raucous town halls, Grassley pulled out of the bipartisan talks, and Obamacare became a fully partisan issue.
Now, he’s hearing from the other side: Americans who are afraid to lose their coverage under the Republican plan to dismantle the law. The GOP is moving forward on repeal despite their failure to come up with an equally-effective alternative.
“With all due respect sir, you’re the man that talked about the death panels. We’re gonna create one great big death panel in this country of people that can’t afford to get insurance,” Petersen told his senator.
This too was a call-back to 2009, when Grassley’s rhetoric fed directly into fears that Democrats were proposing legislation that would lead to “death panels” — groups of bureaucrats who would allegedly decide whether certain Americans are “worthy of health care,” as former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin famously put it. Obamacare does not include “death panels,” but the line fed anti-Obamacare talking points that continue to drive opposition.
After the meeting, Grassley told local press that while the hour-long session was emotional, it was nothing compared to what he saw eight years ago from the Tea Party.
In other districts, however, lawmakers have been hiding from local progressive activists — many newly minted — and disgruntled constituents, who are taking a page from the nascent Tea Party’s 2009 successes. Following that playbook, Americans all over the county are getting organized locally, and targeting their lawmakers with specific, authentic questions, which also help create viral moments like the ones Grassley faced today.
Grassley, unlike many of his colleagues, has pledged to keep visiting constituents in what he calls a “full Grassley,” in which he visits all 99 of Iowa’s counties. (Detractors have pointed out that Grassley’s visits to more liberal counties often take the shape of private meetings.)
Many other lawmakers, however, have cut down on town halls altogether this year amidst a groundswell of backlash against President Donald Trump, prompting local activists to hold what some call “empty chair” town halls without them.
Other members of Congress have opted instead for Facebook live halls or teletown halls. Lawmakers say that these electronic town halls enable more people to participate, but they also enable the lawmakers and their staff to screen questions, and to avoid embarrassing viral moments like those spawned at Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s town hall earlier this month — or, arguably, a few of the exchanges at Grassley’s town hall today.
Those lawmakers that are holding live town halls are getting an earful.
In New York, Rep. Tom Reed (R) was peppered with questions about the healthcare law and booed over the GOP repeal plan. In Ohio, protesters interrupted Rep. Jim Jordan’s (R) President’s Day visit to President Warren G. Harding’s house, and him about the Obamacare repeal and Planned Parenthood. In Florida, Rep. Darren Soto (R) heard from a woman who explained how the healthcare law had saved her life.
“One of my medications is $7,000 and that’s without insurance,” she said. “I’m on 13 medications. Because of the Affordable Care Act, I’m able to get those medications for zero dollars. So it has kept me alive.”