As evening sets in, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's town hall meeting is getting out of hand.
Don Hilbig began by questioning why senior citizens should get federally funded prescription drug benefits, but then went off on a tirade. "The government can't be everything to everybody," complained Hilbig, who earlier had decried the influx of legal and illegal immigrants into the country. "Paying for college tuition, putting people in nursing homes, suing HMOs, you're running into real trouble."
"Maybe we should just euthanize those who can't afford their medicine!" shot back Pat Engen, a teacher and self-described baby boomer.
"You can't have vacations and computers and all those gadgets and Medicare too," Hilbig muttered.
"Just euthanize them!" Engen cried out, undaunted.
It is traditional for lawmakers to go back home when Congress is out of session to talk to their constituents and find out what is on their minds. The town hall meeting has been a favorite forum. Nearly all lawmakers hold them and bring back to Congress samples of opinion to try to score a particular political point. Rep. Robert W. Schaffer (R-Colo.), for example, noted in a floor speech last spring that he found only "one constituent in my district who believes the president has acted properly in committing our armed services and our armed forces to carry out his war in Kosovo."
But this time-honored tradition has its drawbacks. The meetings attract a self-selected crew of malcontents, whose quirky views often veer to both the right and left of the average voter. Moreover, with the public's growing alienation from politics, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norm Ornstein said, fewer people show up. Redistricting has exacerbated the problem, he added, because each lawmaker's district is increasingly tilted toward one party.
"The people involved in politics, even at the level of holding a town meeting, is moving more and more toward the activists," Ornstein said. "It pulls it more to the extremes. No question, members come back and they are reinforced by their ideological positions."
The practice of holding town halls goes back to colonial times, and they served as popular entertainment during the 1800s. "People would go out even if they didn't have views and listen to the debates," said former House historian Raymond W. Smock, adding that many citizens were lured by the food and drink offered at such gatherings.
Still, lawmakers persist in seeking a connection with the public at large. Wisconsin's Ryan, for example, conducted 20 town hall meetings in five days the week after Congress broke for August recess, traversing his southern Wisconsin district several times.
From a Racine Rotary Club luncheon to a senior center in Burlington (known as "Chocolate City" for its manufacturing of Nestle Crunch bars), the 29-year-old GOP freshman was there, listening to whoever wanted to talk.
"I'm new and I need to get acquainted with the people I work for, and get them acquainted with me," said Ryan, who represents a swing district and may be targeted by House Democrats in next year's election.
On a sunny afternoon in early August, perhaps it's understandable that only nine senior citizens (including a liberal gadfly who trekked over from a previous town hall in Twin Lakes) showed up in Burlington, where Ryan conducted a role play to explain how the current national debt came to be.
"People are fairly content," Ryan said later, comparing himself to a car dealer. "If you're angry with the car and you've had to have it fixed, you go into the car dealer and give him a piece of your mind."
He often gets a better sense of his constituents by attending Catholic Church festivals on the weekends, Ryan said, where "there's gambling and drinking. I hang out at the bingo and beer tents."
At Ryan's more formal "listening sessions"--a number of lawmakers used the term even before Hillary Rodham Clinton launched her much-publicized listening tour of New York this summer--several attendees are happy to discuss general issues such as taxes, Social Security and Medicare. But most of them are on a mission.
Take Victoria Hansen, a Kenosha resident who thinks President Clinton and his entire family are "disgusting" and who asked her elected representative to "put a lid on him." Or John Balen, a high-voltage cable splicer from Bristol at the same Kenosha town hall meeting, whose father receives adult day health care from a veterans' facility in North Chicago that is slated to be closed.
"They're not asking for a handout. They're not asking for welfare. They're asking for what they have coming to them. These are the guys that shed the blood. This is a human rights issue we all should be interested in," Balen argued, pausing before offering a more realpolitik assessment of his position. "There's a lot of veterans out there, and a lot of votes."
Noting that he has five veterans in his family, Ryan explained that the House GOP had added $1.7 billion in next year's budget for veterans' health care. "I understand your passion," he said soothingly.
But Balen remained unconvinced. "Fixing up that VA center would cost $50,000," he said. "Some of these people crying about a tax cut earn that in six months. Where's your priorities?"
"What I'm trying to say is I completely agree with you and we're trying to deal with it," Ryan said, taking one last stab at the topic before moving on to how residents should prepare for a potential Y2K crisis.
But it is not all complaints and quirks. A few more town hall meetings offer a more representative sampling of the district: Ryan was able to attract close to 1,000 for a Saturday event in Racine focused on why managed-care companies were stopping Medicare coverage in the district. And even at a tiny gathering at the Paddock Lake Village Hall on a rainy Thursday morning, attendees were enthusiastic about Ryan's budget presentation and the prospects for a sizable tax cut.
As the meeting disbanded, Ryan supporter Joyce Beula had just one regret. "It's a shame more people don't come to these," she remarked.
CAPTION: The tradition of town hall meetings goes back to colonial times, and during the 1800s they often served as popular entertainment for large crowds.