BRUNSWICK, Ga. — The long August congressional recess, which Republicans had hoped would begin a conversation about tax reform and must-pass budget measures, has so far seen another round of angry town halls focused on President Trump and the stalled effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Over just one day, in three small towns along Georgia’s Atlantic coastline, Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.) spent more than four hours answering 74 questions, many of them heated. Just three focused on tax reform; nearly half were about health care.
“We did our job in the House,” Carter said at the top of a town hall at the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick. “It got over to the Senate, and it hit a stumbling block there. Now it’s in their court, and they need to get something done. Folks, we’re not giving up.”
Carter’s town halls — he is hosting nine, more than any other House Republican — mirror what is happening in swing and safe Republican districts across the country. The failure of the health-care repeal bill kick-started a tax reform campaign backed by GOP leaders and pro-business groups, who have booked millions of dollars in TV ads to promote whatever might lead to an “uncomplicated” tax code.
In the first spots, paid for by the American Action Network, a laid-off steelworker worries that without “lower taxes for working families,” more jobs will be “lost to China.” At rallies and forums in several states, Americans for Prosperity has pitched tax reform as a way to “unrig the economy.” And in a polling memo made public this week, the AAN found that 65 to 73 percent of voters responded favorably to reform if it was pitched as a way to “restore the earning power” of the middle class and “save billions of dollars” each year “on tax preparation services.”
But at town hall meetings since the start of the recess, tax reform has hardly come up; health care has dominated. At a Monday event in Flat Rock, N.C., Rep. Mark Meadows (R) pitched a plan to devolve ACA programs to the states, then found himself fending off constituents who backed universal Medicare.
“You can take the top 1 percent and tax them fully, and it still won’t pay for Medicare,” Meadows said.
At a town hall in Chico, Calif., in the most Democratic portion of a deep-red district, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R) faced furious complaints about the repeal vote, with constituents accusing him of acting to bring about their deaths.
“I hope you suffer the same painful fate as those millions that you have voted to remove health care from,” one constituent told LaMalfa. “May you die in pain.”
Carter’s town halls did not reach such a boiling point, but they showed what the tone of congressional listening sessions has become: angry, wistful and loaded with progressive activists.
Georgia’s 1st Congressional District, stretching from Savannah to the Florida border, has been held by the GOP since 1993. In 2016, the Trump-Pence ticket carried the district by 15.5 points, while Democrats could not find a candidate to run against Carter.
But this week, the constituents who signed up for the meetings on Eventbrite and walked past local police officers to take their seats seemed to skew left. Two groups founded after the 2016 election, Speak Up Now and Savannah Taking Action for Resistance, had members at town halls in Darien and Brunswick.
Carter, who peppered his answers with self-deprecating jokes, sometimes called on activists who’d dogged him before. In Brunswick, he quickly pivoted from a question about “Zionist influence in our foreign policy” by promising to “put America first.” After three different constituents asked him whether he supported the president’s decision to ban transgender men and women from military service, he went from deferring “to our commander in chief” to saying what he believed.
“I don’t want ’em serving in the military,” Carter said, as dozens of constituents booed and more than a dozen walked out. “I’m sorry.”
At each town hall, Carter provided fact sheets to advance two messages: how much work Congress had done in 2017, and how his party would not give up on repealing the ACA. A one-pager titled “Health Care Reform: Myth vs. Fact,” with citations from the Department of Health and Human Services, revealed just how much the party had suffered from Democratic attacks. Instead of rebutting the line that the GOP plan would cut Medicaid, it framed the ACA’s Medicaid expansion as a departure from the program’s mission, and one that denied “choice” to the working poor.
“Medicaid was designed to provide a vital health care safety net for elderly, children, pregnant women, and individuals with disabilities,” it read. “Low and middle-income adults capable of holding down a job should have health care choices.”
Behind the microphone, Carter found himself making that point repeatedly, about a slew of ideas for expanded government programs, as Democrats cheered and Republicans simmered. In Brunswick, after Carter told a college student that free tuition was a pipe dream — “we’ve got a $20 trillion” debt — an older man took the mic and advised the student to get a job.
It wasn’t the only time Carter stood back and watched as his constituents argued among themselves. Mary Nelson, 73, used her question time at the Darien town hall to insist that Republicans were all wrong about single-payer health care. She talked about an experience that her Australian relatives had gone through and described a cheap system “with no hoops to jump through” that could be copied in America.
“They are taxed out the wazoo in Australia,” interjected Adrienne Stidhams, 48, a Trump supporter.
“How much do we pay for premiums?” Nelson asked rhetorically.
Like Meadows, Carter suggested that Democrats and Republicans could work together on health-care bills with the repeal effort stalled.
When multiple constituents asked Carter if he would let the probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election play out, he defended the president and suggested that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, “a good man,” would probably “find out the facts” before long.
“I’m worried about some of the people he has around him,” Carter said, apparently referring to lawyers hired for the probe who have been attacked in conservative media for donating to Democrats.
There were no questions about the debt limit, which must be raised when Congress returns to avoid default. The three questions about tax reform focused on the possibility of a “fair tax,” a national sales tax to replace taxes on income; whether companies keeping profits overseas could be taxed; and tax fairness in general.
Carter jumped at the opportunity to talk about it. “What’s being proposed right now is to bring our corporate tax down from 35 percent — one of the highest in the world — down to 15 percent,” he said, citing a tax reform blueprint released this spring and a positive analysis from the conservative Tax Foundation. “That will create jobs.”
No constituents followed up with questions. Instead, there was more skepticism about the president and his plans, countered by constituents who asked Carter to defend the president from media attacks.
“I tell ya, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a president that’s been disrespected by the media like this,” Carter said. He had more to say, but drowned out by booing, he moved on.