Capital Letters: Tough Times at Town Halls

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At a town hall meeting in Richmond Hill, Georgia, Rep. Jack Kingston had only shown a handful of the more than three dozen slides in the Powerpoint he had prepared on Social Security when the questions started. "Who are the trustees?" a man asked Kingston, a Republican congressman who represents 29 counties in the coastal Georgia area around Savannah. After Kingston started trying to explain who the Social Security trustees are, the man quickly interjected "are they congressmen or banks?" Kingston said he wasnít exactly sure who the trustees were, but he would find out. He moved on to the next slide to explain that Social Security's Trust Fund would be depleted by 2042, but then 75-year-old Roy Goodman asked, "why so many different dates here? It was five years, then 10 years, now it's 2042. I don't think the government is telling people the truth about Social Security."

As a member of the Republican leadership in Congress, Jack Kingston is on the front lines of taking on what he admits is the "sacred cow of American politics." If his three town halls conducted last Tuesday in strongly Republican counties are any reflection, President Bush may finally have met his political match. "If Social Security doesn't move this year, I don't know when it will come back," says Kingston, the vice chair of the Republican Conference, which works on developing the House GOP's message. Many Republican members of Congress have been reluctant to have open forums on Social Security and it's easy to see why. They face seniors reluctant to change the program, misinformed people of all ages and organized opposition from left-leaning groups, all without having formal plan from the White House to talk about,

In Richmond Hill, every utterance from Kingston seemed to inspire a new concern. Things didn't get any easier at his other town halls. Even among the elderly, who made up about two-thirds of the crowd at each meeting, people didn't know much about the program. At each meeting, residents asked Kingston why illegal immigrants get Social Security benefits (they don't), if members of Congress pay into Social Security (they do) and why the U.S. didn't employ the money it uses for foreign aid to pay for Social Security (the costs of Social Security completely dwarf the U.S. foreign aid budget). When he explained government would only put the money of workers into safe funds, a group of women immediately shouted "what's safe?" They donít trust us," Kingston admitted.

Kingston tried to find younger people, who usually arenít as opposed to changes as the elderly, to encourage them to speak. But at the town hall at Coastal Georgia Community College, after an elderly woman said she didn't like personal accounts because young people "don't know anything about investing" the handful of people under 40 weren't eager to speak. In Pearson, Georgia at a senior citizens center, Kingston kept trying to get a man who said he was 29, the lone young person in the room, to chime and say he could live with raising the retirement age from 67 to 70, but he wouldn't. After the event, the man admitted he was a member of the local Democratic party and had helped fill the center with people opposed to private accounts.

At the end of his event in Richmond Hill, Kingston praised a father and daughter who had come to the event together, but in a way that suggested Bush's plan may be nearing its death. "One of the great things about this debate," Kingston said, "even if this debate doesn't do anything else, but you go out and save your money, that might be the best thing that could be done."