WASHINGTON – The Easter break will be anything but a break for members of Maryland’s congressional delegation, who will use the two-week recess to criss-cross the state and hold “town hall” meetings on Social Security reform.
Democratic Reps. Steny Hoyer of Mechanicsville, Dutch Ruppersberger of Cockeysville, and Ben Cardin and Elijah Cummings of Baltimore, all have Social Security meetings planned. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, will hold town hall meetings where the issue is expected to come up.
They are the latest in a take-it-to-the-people strategy that both parties have adopted for what one analyst called a “titanic struggle” over the “best-known and most popular federal program ever.”
Bush said in his State of the Union address that Social Security is running out of money. His proposed solution would let some workers take money that would normally go to the Social Security Administration and invest it on their own, in exchange for a reduction in benefits.
Democrats agree there is a problem, but say that personal accounts will not make the system more solvent. Bush’s plan would turn a “guaranteed benefit” into a gamble, say opponents, who argue that only minor changes are needed to keep the system solvent.
Hoyer, the House minority whip, said Democrats have already held about 300 town hall meetings across the country, with many more scheduled for the recess.
Republicans have countered with 287 town halls, said an official with the House Republican Conference, and President Bush got on board last month with his own version of the meetings, the city-hopping “60 Stops in 60 Days Tour.”
Both sides are claiming success.
“The town halls have reinforced what the Democrats have been saying,” said Rep. Al Wynn, D-Mitchellville, who plans to resume his meetings after the recess.
At his meetings, he said, constituents told him, “They don’t want to invest money in the private accounts because they understand that they are risky by nature.”
But Republicans have planned “well over 100 Social Security-related functions and events” for the upcoming congressional break, said House Republican Conference spokesman Greg Crist.
He said that the GOP will be “adding to town hall style” of their meetings by having panels, open houses and “more models to engage the members.” He dismissed reports that Republicans were backing away from town hall meetings, saying the party instead is trying to engage the public on the issue, not just sell a viewpoint.
The outreach by elected officials is not surprising, say experts.
“Town meetings are not unusual,” said Matthew Crenson, chairman of the political science department at Johns Hopkins University.
“What is new is that they are backfiring,” he said, referring to Bush’s tour. Crenson said Bush’s meetings, which are scripted, have been short on detail, while Democratic members of Congress are detailing exactly what will change.
Recent polls have shown most Americans have doubts about the president’s plan. But any change to “best-known and most popular federal program ever,” is going to be a hard sell, said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.
“The president has such an ambitious agenda that looks at changing our social insurance system,” Mann said. “So it has divided the parties like no other issue.”
It has also divided voters.
At a recent town hall meeting that Wynn held in Germantown, people were screaming at each other — and at Wynn, who blamed the ruckus on people he thinks were planted in the crowd by the Republican Party. But Wynn said the sentiment has been “overwhelmingly opposed to the private accounts.”
The “overwhelming responses” from constituents is why both sides say they are pressing forward with their public sales pitches.
Cardin’s town hall meetings have been “very successful,” said Susan Sullam, his spokeswoman. Cardin’s calendar is packed with Social Security events, with six scheduled by April 10.
And Republicans are not ready to cede the populist pitch, Crist said.
“The Democrats want to say we are throwing in the towel,” Crist said. “But we are we are only 60 days into this campaign . . . we’re in the second inning.”
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