After watching elected representatives face town hall audiences in recent weeks, we have to admire their ability to keep a straight face and offer respectful responses. It was apparent in both sessions that some of the no-holds barred form of political debate that we decry in Salem and Washington comes from the voters as well as the elected officials.
Oregon State Rep. Wayne Krieger (R-Gold Beach) and Sen. Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg) were pretty blunt about the dilemma they face sometimes. On issue after issue – land use, health care, taxes and more – constituents offered ideas and beliefs that were complete opposites.
Pointing to two members of the audience, Krieger explained there was no way to make each of them happy. Kruse added that his values were well known when he was elected, making no excuse for the conservative tack he takes.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has honed his town hall skills – and crowd-control procedures – by keeping up his pledge to hold a town hall session in every Oregon county every year since he took office. When faced with a contrary idea or argument, he takes care to explain the choices.
Opposition to log exports, for example, led Wyden to explain that it’s hard in a free market economy to tell someone they can’t sell a product at the best price. At one point, Wyden was incorrectly assailed for not supporting a bill he actually wrote.
A question about federal deficits brought a reminder that most of the federal budget is spent on entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. To illustrate the problem, Wyden polled the audience about one idea to help balance the budget: Raise the retirement age for workers who are now younger than 25. The audience – almost all older than 50, and so not affected – overwhelmingly opposed the idea.
The town halls left us reminded of wisdom from the cartoon character Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”