Patti Wenzel

Russ listens while taxpayers speak their minds

By - Sep 18th, 2009 10:38 pm
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Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) responds to a constituent during his Milwaukee County listening session.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) responds to a constituent during his Milwaukee County listening session.

Russ Feingold has to be one of the only senators in Washington, D.C., with an ounce of integrity left. When he agrees with you, he’ll tell you. If he disagrees with you, even if you’re the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, he’ll let you know.  And while he would like to see Congress adopt a single payer health care plan, he is willing  to admit that it’s probably not in the cards and to say that we might have to settle for the public option proposal.

That was his overall message to about 200 citizens gathered for his Milwaukee County listening session Friday afternoon. It wasn’t billed as a health-care town hall, as many of the constituent meetings were dubbed last month, but the hotly debated subject was a major topic.

Feingold has never been shy about asking his constituents for their opinions. Since he took office in 1993, he has held a listening session in each of  Wisconsin’s 72 counties annually, allowing the people to speak about whatever was on their minds.

Those lucky enough to get the microphone Friday discussed the wars and operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan; the crisis in Somalia; Feingold’s support for individual gun rights; the ever-growing federal deficit; Obama’s “czars;” Cap and Trade; and CardCheck. One young man disrupted the uneventful proceedings when he called the session “a charade” and accused Feingold of  publicly denouncing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while secretly supporting the U.S. incursion into Pakistan.

But for every speaker on these issues, there were four waiting with a question and comment about health care reform.

The loudest applause was reserved for those who lobbied a single payer health plan to be paid for with dollars saved from a withdrawal from foreign battlefields. Feingold shared their enthusiasm, but tempered it with a dose of reality.

“I’m disappointed that the Baucus bill did not have single-payer,” Feingold told the crowd, referring to a proposed Senate bill announced by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana). “I haven’t read the entire bill, but I have always favored a single-payer plan. But, if the support for it isn’t there we need to get what we can get.”

Other speakers told stories about how they were denied health coverage because of a previous eating disorder, how cancer medications were bankrupting the family and how Social Security cost of living allowance freezes were making it difficult to continue to cover Medicare gap coverage.

In a pre-session interview with members of the press, Feingold said state health care programs, like BadgerCare, which helps the underinsured and children receive health care, would not be affected by any reforms made at the federal level.

“BadgerCare is essentially a federal program, funded with the federal cigarette tax. It is simply administered by the individual states.” He said the success of BadgerCare is a good example of what a federal health care plan could look like.

The senator urged cooperation when another citizen reminded him that the nation elected Obama and the other Democrats in 2008 and that they were given the power to get the job of health care reform completed.

“I will not ignore the Republicans, and I’m not a one-party guy,” he said. He harkened back to his work with Sen. John McCain on campaign finance reform and the cooperation between the late-Sen. Edward Kennedy and then President George W. Bush on education reforms.  He added that Sen. Olympia Snow (R-Maine) could be very important in moving any health care bill on Capitol Hill.

“I work for everybody in this state, all the good people of Wisconsin.”

There were naysayers to the proposed health care reforms, with one speaker citing the poor performance and financial losses of the U.S. Postal Service, Social Security, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the war on poverty.

“Why should we believe the government can run health care when they can’t run these programs?” the man asked.

Feingold explained that he didn’t share the questioners view that the above-mentioned government programs were failing. “Yes, the Post Office has some problems, but I still get my mail,” Feingold said light-heartedly. “But what we need to do is find what works in government and what needs to be fixed.”

Feingold also explained to health care supporters that major changes in policy can’t be achieved without the confidence of the taxpayers. “The truth is, you can’t get confidence if the government doesn’t do things well; we need to do things right. But with giant deficits and bailouts to Wall Street, the people have a right to be suspicious. We need to prove to them that it can be done.”

Feingold also called out his fellow Democrats for the heated rhetoric currently surrounding the debate. When asked  by a health care opponent to denounce the characterizations by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former President Jimmy Carter that he was a bigot, racist or Nazi, Feingold was symphathetic.

“I assume you are a good Wisconsinite with good motives,” Feingold told the man. “I don’t blame you for being mad. It is not appropriate to assume a person’s motives, and I just admonished them.”

Even if you don’t agree with Russ, at least he’s a stand-up guy willing to listen to both sides and tell them off, if need be.

Categories: Politics

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