Grassroots Activism For Me, But Not For Thee

Democratic legislators are complaining vigorously about the push-back they are receiving on health reform during town hall meetings. House Majority Leader Pelosi stated that reform opponents were “carrying swastikas and symbols like that to a town meeting on healthcare” and dismissed them as “Astroturf” rather than a grassroots movement. An editorial cartoon in the Washington Post similarly suggests that the protests are being orchestrated.

Senator Reid views protesters as a “fringe that is trying to mess up our meetings.” The White House Deputy Chief of Staff has advised legislators if “If you get hit, we will punch back twice as hard.” The Administration is asking individuals who hear things that are “fishy” to submit them by email.
Paul Krugman concedes that anti-privatization activists” who opposed social security reforms during the Bush Administration were “sometimes raucous and rude, [but] I can’t find any examples of congressmen shouted down, congressmen hanged in effigy, congressmen surrounded and followed by taunting crowds.” Krugman concludes this is “something new and ugly” – and reforms opponents must be motivated at least in part by racism.

Krugman’s claim that protests of this sort are unprecedented is wrong. A virtually identical scenario played out in 1989. By an overwhelming margin, Congress had enacted the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act in 1988. The Act provided more extensive hospitalization benefits and prescription drug coverage, but it imposed the costs of that benefit on the elderly.

Congress was soon flooded with angry letters and there were numerous confrontations with angry constituents when individual congressmen returned to their districts. As Andrea Mitchell observed on ABC News, “the elderly are not against the new benefits – unlimited hospital care, new at-home benefits, prescription drug coverage; they just don’t want to pay for them.”

The turning point came on August 17, 1989, when Dan Rostenkowski, House Ways and Means Chairman and one of the most powerful men in Congress, found himself fleeing a crowd of irate senior citizens protesting the Catastrophic Coverage Act.

Representative Rostenkowski had scheduled a meeting in his home district to hear constituent concerns and speak about the advantages of the Medicare catastrophic coverage act. A crowd of angry senior citizens waved signs protesting the fact they would have to pay more taxes to fund the covered benefit. People shouted “coward,” “recall,” and “impeach” after Representative Rostenkowski refused to speak with them and got in his car. One senior citizen (Leona Kozien) even jumped on the hood of Congressman Rostenkowski’s car to stop him from leaving.

The picture below was taken moments before Ms. Kozien jumped on the hood – she is the women in the rose-colored heart shaped glasses. (The picture appeared in Newsweek and the Chicago Sun Times, and was taken by Tom Cruze)

Representative Rostenkowski got out of the car and ran a block, chased by the crowd. He was then picked up by his car and whisked away. The incident resulted in front page coverage nationwide. The TV news ran footage of Rostenkowski fleeing from his constituents. Rostenkowski reportedly asked his press secretary whether the issue would go away in a few days, and was told “Let me put it this way Congressman. When you die, they will play this clip on television.” Three months later, the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act was repealed.

As with today, the media had little sympathy for the protesters. The New York Times editorialized that “there’s little reason to sympathize with the aggrieved affluent elderly,” whose complaints were “short-sighted and narrow-minded.” In the New Republic, one commentator condemned the “selfishness” of the “affluent elderly,” and asked “so long as we continue to provide enormous subsidies to the affluent elderly, why shouldn’t they help pay for the poor of their generation?” (You can read more, and find the sources for the enclosed in chapter four of my book on Medicare.

It is understandable that the Administration and Congressional Democrats are unhappy with push-back to their plans. But, August is proving to be rich in ironies. The Administration of a former teacher of constitutional law is unhappy that individuals are exercising their Constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances. The Administration of a former community organizer is complaining about community organizing. Congressional Democrats have long relied on community organizing (and union members), and are suddenly appalled at organized communities.

And, perhaps the richest irony of all — the organizer of the protest against Rostenkowski was Jan Schakowsky – then Director of the Illinois State Council of Senior Citizens – and currently Democratic representative from the Ninth Congressional District of Illinois, and chief deputy whip to Majority Leader Pelosi. You can read Schakowsky’s account of the incident, her role, and her views on the importance of citizen involvement in government here – at a lecture she gave at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research in 2002, entitled “Why Citizen Activism Matters: The View From Washington.”

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