It’s a week of devotional traditions: Passover, Easter, and members of Congress going home to reassure seniors that Washington—or their party, anyway—will not turn their golden years into impoverished ones.
During a two-week recess that comes after votes to impose fundamental changes on the American entitlement system and before a vote on boosting the debt ceiling, the office hours and town-hall meetings back in the district will feature congressmen looking for praise on spending cuts and trying to assuage fears about their consequences.
For both parties, the constituent interactions are early skirmishes for the 2012 elections, opportunities to retrofit the national party to suit district needs.
Republicans' challenge is fending off concerns that the knife didn’t go deep enough and the bloodletting won’t be too great. Democrats will be looking to ward off the idea their party is hopelessly addicted to spending and not serious about aligning the budget with hard economic facts.
“I understand how the other side’s going to paint it. There’s fear factors out there to try to scare ’em. I think it’s very unfair,” said Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., about the fiscal 2012 spending plan House Republicans passed without Democratic votes.
“I think the way we message Medicare and Medicaid is the key right now,” Kelly added. “And I’m going to say this: Whenever you tell people that you’re not going to have coverages that you’re entitled to, when things are going to change and you’re not going to be able to do this, they become alarmed.”
Kelly’s chief recess talking point: safety. “Seniors are safe. Seniors safe. There’s a lot of stuff being spun out.... I’m telling them they’re safe. And they are safe. And we know they’re safe.”
The House Republican Conference’s official “work week kit” reinforces the idea that the budget from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., "secures our health and retirement benefit programs both for current beneficiaries, who will receive the benefits they’ve organized their retirements around, and for future generations, who will inherit stronger programs they can count on when they retire."
Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, held a telephone town hall the night before the House passed the fiscal 2011 budget deal last week; he described it as “high interest,” with nearly 5,000 constituents on the line.
“Everybody there was questioning what has happened so far,” Carter told National Journal. “I told them, get out your government book and look it up. If you’ve forgotten, we have three entities that have to pass this, and there’s no way you get them to pass it with the other party unless you negotiate.”
“I wanted more, but there wasn’t more. I’m practical. The only bill I had an opportunity to vote for and cut discretionary spending was this bill,” Carter added.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of 108 Democrats who voted against the CR, said he planned to take the opposite tack with his constituents.
“Given the economic situation, we should not be doing further deficit reduction right now in the public sector,” Frank told NJ. “I am for serious deficit reduction, but not for the rest of this fiscal year. I think it comes at the wrong time.”
And Frank said the House should have reduced military spending rather than spreading cuts across social programs.
Frank goes home to a socially liberal district. But for Republicans returning to constituents unhappy the budget wasn’t trimmed more, Carter had a parry in the form of a promise.
“If people are unhappy, I’ll say... we pledged we would cut $100 billion worth of spending in a year. Today’s April.... There’s more to come.”
This article appears in the April 18, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.