The American Health Care Act might have died if not for Rep. Tom MacArthur.
The centrist Republican negotiated a key amendment with a leading conservative lawmaker that resuscitated the package after it had been left for dead and sparked the momentum that led to its passage in the House on May 4.
A few days later, MacArthur, 56, traveled to Willingboro, the most Democratic community in his Southern New Jersey district, for a town hall meeting. There, in a town that delivered only 9 percent of its vote to President Trump, MacArthur tried to explain his vote and give liberals an opportunity to voice their concerns.
They didn’t hold back. For five hours, MacArthur fielded questions (and lectures) from a mostly hostile crowd angry with him for supporting a bill that would partially repeal Obamacare.
The congressman even had to endure taunts when he explained that suffering the death of a special-needs child made him perhaps uniquely sensitive to how important it is to have access to quality, affordable healthcare.
In an interview with the Washington Examiner, MacArthur discussed the experience and what he learned from it. He also offered Republicans in the Senate a little advice as they attempt to write their own healthcare bill.
Washington Examiner: Why did you decide to travel to the most Democratic part of your district for your first town hall meeting after the healthcare bill passed the House?
MacArthur: Because I think it’s important that people realize that I represent — not realize, they know it — but I think it’s important for me to remind people I represent everyone in my district, I know that, and I wanted to give people a chance in that region of my district, which is more Democratic, to talk to me.
Washington Examiner: It was a hostile liberal crowd. They badgered you and lectured you, yet you took questions for nearly five hours. Why?
MacArthur: There were people there who were unkind and unfair in their remarks, and it did play out the way you just described it, but I think it’s important to — particularly on a subject that’s been as tense as healthcare is and as divisive as healthcare is — I don’t regret doing that … I had to endure them to speak to everyone else. There were a lot of people there who just came out of concern. And don’t forget there were a lot of other people watching remotely that weren’t in the meeting but seeing the proceedings, and they need to understand that I get the concerns, I genuinely do. I want them to know that I understand the concerns they have about losing healthcare. I’m trying to fix that. I’m trying to fix a certainty that I see that if we don’t act, millions of people are going to get hurt. And they may not see it yet, they may feel that the federal government will just have to fix it when it collapses and they won’t lose anything. But that’s not reality. We have to fix this now, or millions of people will get hurt. That’s what I believe, and that’s what I’ve tried to convey to the people I met with.
Washington Examiner: Was the hostile behavior of the crowd justified? Or was it rude and unfair?
MacArthur: There were some in both categories. There were some people there who were just concerned and wanted to hear from me, there were others who wouldn’t let me respond and shouting out “answer the question” but not letting me answer the question. And I think those people had a political agenda. And so you can’t just see it as one crowd, one entity — there were hundreds of people that were coming from different places. The lack of civil discourse should concern every American, that you can’t have a town hall where you can debate ideas and talk strenuously — you know, I’m OK with that. But to insult and to demonize someone who has a different opinion, who sees it differently, that’s not healthy. I grew up in a home where my mother was a progressive Democrat and my dad was a conservative Republican. They fought like cats and dogs on politics, but they loved each other and they showed respect.
Some people crossed the line [that] night, some people got personally insulting, some people were cruel. I have thick skin, you have to in this business, so this isn’t a matter of me having a personal problem with the evening — I could endure five hours, I could endure 15 hours. The issue is, what does it say about politics in America today that suddenly if somebody doesn’t agree with your solution they’re immoral? That’s what people were shouting out, some of them.
Washington Examiner: Did you learn anything from the experience? Or was it the tongue-lashing from liberals that you expected when you scheduled the town hall?
MacArthur: I definitely learned things from the evening. I won’t necessarily say they were about healthcare. I’ve been rolling around in this stuff for a long time, and no new details came out that evening that were a surprise to me. I understood the issues that concern people, some of them I think were more informed and were asking questions that revealed they were informed, but that they just wanted to understand how certain things would flow. We might have had an honest disagreement with those people. Others just didn’t really care to be informed about the details, they had made up their mind this was a rotten plan and they just wanted to stop me from explaining it. I tell you what I did learn about, though: There were a lot of Bernie Sanders Democrats that were there that night. And I realized they were still very active and that is the wing of the Democratic Party that is making the most noise. They want socialism; that’s what they want.
They made it clear to me that night that they wanted socialism. They want socialized medicine. To them, the only answer is single-payer healthcare. Everything else is immoral. They said it over and over. Well, I disagree 100 percent. I think that they don’t know what they’re asking for. They haven’t really thought through what it will mean for the federal government to take over the entire healthcare industry, which is nearly 20 percent of the U.S. economy, and have bureaucrats deciding everything — deciding what doctors get paid, deciding what hospitals get paid, deciding how long you have to recover from knee surgery, deciding how much care is appropriate as you get older. They want a system where government bureaucrats make all those decisions because they don’t want to lose what they perceive that they have today. That was an eye-opener to me, that the most loud and angry people there that night were people that want socialized medicine.
Washington Examiner: What is your assessment of Trump’s leadership, and has he contributed to the breakdown in civil discourse? At one point during the town hall, some attendees defended their aggressive behavior by saying that that’s how the president acts, so why shouldn’t they.
MacArthur: For people to cite [Trump] as an excuse for their own behavior is pretty shallow. I’m not even going to evaluate that in the light of the president’s actions. People can like or dislike what the president does and how he does it — and this is something I said over and over that night, I wasn’t there to either support or defend every last comment or tweet that the president makes. It’s not productive for me to do that. So, people can like or dislike, but don’t use that as an excuse for your own uncivil behavior. I still feel that way.
Washington Examiner: Are you pleased with the president’s leadership, including on healthcare?
MacArthur: Yes, and I’m not going to get into every last detail. I don’t agree with everything he’s done in the course of this presidency. That’s fine; he’s the president. I respect him for that. And I can tell you in my own interactions with him, which have been entirely around healthcare, I think he’s exercised good leadership. He has respected Congress, which I think is far different than the last eight years. President Obama did not show respect for Congress, not even members of Congress in his own party. I used to hear that complaint all the time, that he never consulted them, he never engaged with them, he did everything with his close insular group. I didn’t find that at all with this debate with President Trump. He didn’t try to force his agenda. He made it clear that within limits he’d sign any bill that Congress could agree on, on healthcare. He made some priorities clear. But I think he’s acted with good leadership. He encouraged, he put some pressure where it was needed, and I believe he’ll continue to do that now that the bill is in the Senate.
Washington Examiner: What’s your relationship like with your fellow centrists? Some were upset with you for negotiating a comprise amendment to the healthcare bill with the leader of the conservative faction.
MacArthur: The people in the Tuesday Group are among my closest friends in Congress. That’s not going to change. That doesn’t mean some of them weren’t unhappy with what I did.
Washington Examiner: With the healthcare bill now in the Senate, how challenging is it going to be for House and Senate Republicans to come to an agreement on Obamacare repeal?
MacArthur: The Senate is going to find quickly that this is difficult. I don’t really see them starting from scratch. I’ve heard those reports, too, but I just don’t see them starting from scratch. I think they will take our bill, will start making adjustments to certain areas, perhaps the tax credits, they may change the form of them, they may means test them, I think that’s an area that frankly could use some improvement. I don’t see them reinventing the whole subject. I really don’t. It was difficult to get this bill out of the House — it was nearly impossible to get it out actually, and I don’t see senators wanting to invest enormous amounts of effort starting over, realizing with almost certainty that they’ll never get it out of the House on the other end.
I think they’ll work with our bill, they’ll make adjustments. They’re going to find what we found, that it’s not easy to balance the people in our party that are mostly concerned about bringing down the healthcare cost curve and the people that are committed to make sure that we care for the neediest among us. I don’t know any member of the House who doesn’t want to do both of those things, not like one group is focused totally on cost and the other on the needy. Every member of Congress I spoke to wants to do both.
This post originally appeared on Washington Examiner