Horseheads, New York, August 31st - As I approached the latest town hall meeting in a divisive congressional recess, I expected to face another divided crowd of thoroughly made-up minds spoiling for a fight with the well-versed and independent-minded Congressman Massa -- complete with signs, shouts, sarcasm, and shaken faith in humanity.
Consider my faith restored.
Another packed high school auditorium was the venue for an insightful and sometimes impressive conversation about HR 3200 and health care reform in general. An intelligent and inquisitive audience plied Congressman Massa with informed questions and polite comments for several hours, a challenge to which the Congressman rose with his usual passion and depth of knowledge. It is a mark of the civility on display that I wasn't even able to make a general reading of "supporters vs opponents" based on applause, as I was in Victor. By and large, it seemed, people were there to get the facts.
It is always easier to make a story out of the sensational, as we've seen time and again over the past - well, forever. But steady, solid yet passionate democracy in action - this, too, is a story worth telling.
Questions about legislative process, single-payer nations and alternatives, medicaid expenses and medical bankruptcy, rationing of care and citizenship checks were asked and answered over the hours-long event. Not asked? Anything about death panels or ACORN - a refreshing change of pace. I can freely admit that I learned quite a bit about this bill and about government in general - and I was as shocked as everyone else to find that HR 3200 ties public option premium payments to the rates charged by private insurers. That's not competition, that's collusion - and it's as disappointing as it is frustrating.
I'm not immune to the appeal of conflict, and I'll admit there's something satisfying about watching a man stand to toss out quotes from Ronald Reagan about government interference -- to strong applause -- only to have Massa respond with a Reagan quote of his own, to equal applause. And I know I walked in there firm in my beliefs, and worried for my country. But there is something truly and uniquely American to watching an audience full of people who live and work just down the street get together to talk things over with another neighbor who we are going to send to Washington to speak for us.
It is reassuring to see a representative cite the Constitution as easily as a preacher cites the Bible. It is more than heartening to see that representative stand up and unashamedly say that when the only option we in this country provide our sick and elderly with is to drive them into poverty so they can finally get Medicaid to cover their health care, that isn't just a budgeting problem - that is morally and ethically wrong. When people are dying because insurance companies won't pay the bills their premiums are supposed to obligate them to pay, that's not neglect - that is murder. And in the face of that, it is genuinely restorative to have a congressman who I know will - as Reagan said we must - "have the moral courage to do what we know is right."
That's democracy done right.