If the giant inflatable Trump chicken outside New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur’s town hall didn’t make it clear — or the group of people singing health care-themed protest songs; or the Affordable Care Act cemetery; or even the plane circling overhead trailing an anti-MacArthur message — an early moment in the Republican’s constituent town hall provided a sign this was going to be a long, contentious night.
That’s when several people in the Willingboro, N.J., crowd started to boo and jeer when MacArthur talked about his daughter, Grace, who died at age 11.
“Shame!” yelled one person. “We’ve heard this before,” complained another.
Their complaint: that MacArthur was somehow exploiting the story of his daughter’s illness as he leads the Republican push to repeal key aspects of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
“I will say, shame on you right now, actually,” MacArthur responded. “Don’t tell me what I’m using. I’m going to tell you because this affects my perspective. It affects my perspective on this issue of health care.”
The tense moment set the tone in a marathon town hall that lasted well past the length of time it takes many people to run actual marathons.
For nearly five hours, MacArthur faced hostile question after hostile question from a crowd eager to show its displeasure with Republicans’ Obamacare repeal attempts, the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the lack of an independent commission investigating potential ties between President Trump’s campaign and Russia.
“I must say, I have a great deal of admiration for your tolerance for masochism,” constituent Ruth Gage noted somewhere around the three-hour mark. (Gage went on to needle MacArthur about the need for single-payer health insurance.)
Defending the Republican health care bill
The room was tense, especially on the topic of health care, because MacArthur authored the key amendment to the American Health Care Act that won enough support from House Republicans for the measure to pass on a razor-thin margin.
“This is your health care bill. It was dead in the water. It could have stayed dead in the water and now it’s the MacArthur Amendment that brought this thing forward,” said Derek Reichenbecher.
“What I’m worried about is, if I lose my job, I suddenly am no longer in the market, I’m no longer covered, my governor who is not a friend of people like me right now decides to opt out. What happens?”
MacArthur said repeatedly throughout the night that the House bill won’t deny coverage or increase costs for people with pre-existing conditions, and that the changes that could steer people into high-risk pools only applied to a small segment of the population: buyers on the individual market who let their coverage lapse for two months or more.
“Look I hear the fear. I know it’s real,” he said, after one of many detailed, personal stories about health care battles and insurance woes. In this case, it was from a woman who relies on Medicaid, the federal-state program that helps pay for health care.
“And as I said, I think it’s tremendous courage for you to come out and share that,” MacArthur continued. “I am trying to save a system so it continues to help you. That’s all I can tell you. I’m trying to make sure that Medicaid is strong enough to continue to help you.”
But the crowd wasn’t in the mood to hear MacArthur’s arguments about how tort reform and other cost controls were needed to make health insurance more affordable. They viewed the House health care repeal as something that could take their coverage away. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office estimated some 24 million people would lose coverage over the coming decade if an earlier version of the measure were to become law.
From health care to Russia
The second topic to dominate the evening: Russia. No one asked about anything other than those two issues for more than two hours.
Kimberly Stewart was one of the first people to ask about the FBI’s probe into whether anyone on Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian operatives. “We seem to be having a pattern that most people that are investigating it seem to be getting fired. Do you support an independent group investigating Russia’s ties into the 2016 election?”
“No, not yet,” MacArthur said, to more boos. He wants to see how the House, Senate and FBI investigations play out, and repeatedly argued that a special prosecutor would not be a “silver bullet” guaranteeing an independent probe.
“Folks, I didn’t come here to defend our president tonight,” MacArthur said at one point. “I came to answer your questions and tell you what I think and what I am doing.”
At points MacArthur rolled with the hostility — he gave no visible reaction when one constituent stood within a few feet of him and yelled for nearly 10 minutes.
At other times, MacArthur was clearly frustrated. “Is this what you want in your country? You don’t like what somebody says and they’re an idiot and they’re dishonest and they’re a fraud?” he asked.
Increasingly, in all political quarters, it appears like that’s the case.
NPR’s Barbara Sprunt contributed to this report.