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Hearing an exercise in futility

Rep. John Doolittle walked into hostile territory Tuesday when he brought his message of Social Security reform to Grass Valley.

The Republican lawmaker was here to discuss President Bush’s plan to fix a program that by all accounts is teetering in the wrong direction. He was greeted by nearly 200 constituents, the majority of whom were in no mood to be sold on a plan to add private accounts to the retirement program.

Doolittle, the sixth-ranking Republican in the House, was roundly booed several times by the crowd in the Grass Valley Elks Lodge. The congressman held his own, but it’s doubtful that much was accomplished except for a healthy exchange of ideas.



The meeting, unfortunately, was doomed from the start.

Doolittle is among the top echelon of leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Republican leadership is solidly behind President Bush’s proposal to add private accounts to the Social Security program.




In an interview Tuesday at The Union, Doolittle said the House is prepared to pass legislation that would include private accounts. And when a Republican leader of Congress says it will happen, it will, unless something extraordinary occurs. He also sincerely believes that private accounts will help fix the system. As a result, Doolittle was representing the Republican Party and its efforts to sell America on private accounts when he visited Grass Valley.

Those who attended Tuesday’s town hall meeting probably knew this wasn’t a fact-finding mission where they could expect their lawmaker to take their concerns back to Washington and put it on the big table for further discussions.

So much like fans who are unhappy with the home team, they booed.

One can argue whether this was bad behavior aimed at an elected official willing to confront tough crowd. But let’s not let the behavior overshadow the larger issue of how this proposal is being handled.

The initial proposal was created without input that would result from sessions such as Tuesday’s in Grass Valley. The administration, Republican lawmakers, lobbyists and others with vested interests crafted this proposal before Doolittle and others hit the road to convince Americans of its merits.

While saying that it wants to welcome everyone to the table for talks on this matter, the administration has also set certain conditions before that can happen.

One example, and Doolittle confirmed this Tuesday, is that increasing the payroll tax is not negotiable. Now, workers see no increase in their Social Security contribution once their salary exceeds $90,000 a year. So a worker who earns say $250,000 pays the same rate as someone making $90,000.

The AARP, meanwhile, has said it won’t come to the table unless private accounts are up for discussion. The administration appears reluctant to agree to that condition.

President Bush, meanwhile, said Wednesday he discounts recent polls that show the majority of Americans oppose private accounts.

So who is listening to the public? How do our views get to the table?

Citizens want and expect to be heard on these issues, but increasingly they’re feeling less relevant. And it’s hard to blame them. Politicians rarely seek our input, preferring the company of those who donate generously to their campaign funds.

Town hall meetings are good ideas, but they need to be held before the template is written if they are to be considered legitimate exercises in democracy. If citizens really felt they were involved in the process, they wouldn’t be booing. Even in Grass Valley.


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