WILLINGBORO, N.J. — Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), the co-author of an amendment that rescued the House Republicans’ health-care bill from the doldrums, told his audience that he’d come to Willingboro — a majority African-American town between Philadelphia and Trenton — for a reason.
He didn’t have a lot of fans.
“The president got 9 percent of the vote here,” said MacArthur, at the start of a Wednesday night town hall meeting. “I crushed it with 12 percent.”
But despite his attempts at jollity, and some repeated appeals to the audience of 200-odd constituents not to talk over each other, MacArthur slugged through five hours of hostile questions on everything from the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey to whether the remodeled American Health Care Act would punish women who had been the victims of rape.
The mood was toxic from the start. Protesters lined up outside the town’s Kennedy Center event hall for hours before the 6:30 p.m. start time: an assemblage of local activist groups, including chapters of Indivisible, New Jersey Citizen Action and Our Revolution. Tax March, a group that grew out of protests demanding the president’s tax returns, inflated a balloon that approximated a chicken with golden, Trump-like hair; nearby, dozens of protesters lay down in a “die-in,” as a man wearing a Trump puppet head pretended to tee off on them. In the sky, a plane flew by, trailing letters that spelled out “MacArthur Tax Cut for 1% No Care.”
MacArthur’s town hall was designed to weed out interlopers. District residents stood in line — at start time, it stretched as long as a football field — for one of the scarce seats inside. MacArthur entered the room through a curtain, with a sound system playing Coldplay’s anthem “A Sky Full of Stars.” Despite some of the trappings of a rally, there was little applause.
For more than five hours, MacArthur presented himself as an empathetic, pragmatic legislator who had to represent “one of the few real swing seats.” But he rarely got a break. He opened with a story that, in other settings, would have been a gut punch — the decision to raise a daughter with special needs and to take her off life support when, at 11 years old, she passed away.
He could hardly get the story out, as angry constituents accused him of diverting the discussion from his health-care bill.
“We know about your daughter,” yelled one constituent. (On MacArthur’s campaign website, he tells the story to burnish his pro-life credentials.)
From that point, MacArthur was on defense, assuring constituents that he was saving the health-care system from itself and challenging the hecklers who questioned his motives.
“I like that when President Obama tackled this issue, he covered millions more people,” MacArthur said at one point — one of many recent examples of Republicans framing their bill not as a “repeal” but as a rescue plan for people stranded by the private markets created by the Affordable Care Act. Congress had to act, he said, to stanch the flow of insurers from the exchanges in certain states.
“I’m looking at an insurance market that is collapsing,” MacArthur said.
“That’s because you drilled holes in it!” shouted a constituent — whose shout kicked off a chant of “single payer, single payer!”
There were so many cries for single-payer health care — essentially, Medicare that would be open to everyone and not restricted by age — that MacArthur spent an unusual amount of time arguing its merits. “It works in some small countries,” he conceded, before arguing that America’s complexity and size would prevent a similar system from paying off.
For much of the night, MacArthur was ping-ponged between constituents furious about the AHCA and about the firing of Comey. He was blown back by a lengthy rant about each — first, when Paul Ziegler, 53, got up to deliver a monologue about his “concerns” with Trump and his worry that MacArthur did not share them.
“I’m concerned that I have a president who praises Vladimir Putin and other dictators,” said Ziegler. “I’m concerned that he doesn’t read history. Quite frankly, if he did, he wouldn’t have fired the man investigating him.”
After that, and for the rest of the night, MacArthur said that questions about whether Russian hackers interfered to help Trump’s campaign — and whether Trump’s campaign knew about it — were best handled by Congress. The current investigations could finish their work more quickly than people thought.
“That investigation is now continuing in a bipartisan matter,” said MacArthur.
“Come on, are you serious?” yelled one constituent.
“The Senate chair and the ranking member have both declared that they’re working together,” said MacArthur.
“Politicians!” yelled the constituent.
“How’s it ever going to get finished if you keep firing the people who are investigating it?” asked another constituent.
“You asked, and I answered,” summed up MacArthur. “Folks, I didn’t come here to defend the president tonight.”
But constituents kept coming back to the Russia question, testing whether a congressman who touted his independence — “Go look at [GovTrack.us], look at the chart” — would ever hold Trump accountable. “When I see something that’s a violation,” MacArthur said, he’d entertain a further investigation. That wasn’t enough.
“Imagine if we had a different president, a woman with a D after her name, who did this to Comey,” said one constituent. “Somehow I think you’d be of a different opinion of whether a special prosecutor would need to be convened.”
“Actually, I wouldn’t,” said MacArthur. “My opinion is the same as it’s been.”
He delivered the end of that answer over a rumble of laughter, a challenge he faced again when asked why he’d voted to kill a Democratic bill that would have compelled Trump to release his tax returns.
“I do think he should release his tax returns,” said MacArthur. “I don’t think it’s Congress’s role to force that.”
Still, most of the tough questions focused on the amendment that, as one constituent put it, “brought that bill back from the dead.” Round after round, MacArthur tried to talk through the mechanics of the bill. Over shouts of “single payer,” he attempted to explain that the bill’s combination of risk pools and Medicaid caps would, in the end, protect the health insurance system that the ACA had put at risk.
“Members of Congress don’t vote on the bill they wish was in front of them,” he said, describing his own legislation. “They vote on the bill that is in front of them.”
There were moments of nervous tension, as some constituents used their question time to grind MacArthur down on details they’d read about. After one asked whether he’d read the bill, MacArthur shot back, asking if the questioner had read it or just some hit piece online.
“I am trying to save a system so it continues to help you,” he said. “I am trying to make sure Medicaid is strong enough to continue.”
Two teenagers, who assured MacArthur that they would be voting in 2018, held their microphones closely as they repeatedly asked the congressman if he could promise them that rape was “not a preexisting condition” as written in the AHCA.
“How did it pass your conscience to allow rape to be considered a preexisting condition?” asked one of the teenagers.
“This is the sort of hysteria that makes people not listen,” said MacArthur.
But there was no part of the AHCA that MacArthur’s audience couldn’t challenge. After one constituent said the bill would gut Medicare to dole out tax cuts, the congressman highlighted the bill’s elimination of taxes on income and on profits from stock investments.
“This isn’t tax cuts for the rich — this is tax cuts for everybody!” he said.
More than an hour later, a constituent challenged MacArthur by telling the room that the tax cuts would hit only top income rates. Citing MacArthur’s own public financial disclosures, he estimated that the congressman would save $37,000 on taxes if AHCA became law.
“In terms of dollars, that was one of the smallest ones,” said MacArthur, highlighting the bill’s other tax cuts. “They’re not targeted at wealthy people.”
The audience never went along with the sales pitch. With the choice of venue — with the choice to hold a town hall meeting in the first place — MacArthur had courted that reaction. But when the heckles grew particularly loud, the congressman asked the crowd to consider what it was part of. He was spending most of an evening on their questions; his reward, at times, was being called an idiot.
“I understand there are different views, but I hear people calling me an idiot. I hear people shouting curse words,” said MacArthur. “I wonder, I really wonder how any of you would perform in Congress with that attitude.”