By Gregory Korte, USA TODAY
GREENFIELD, Wis. — At the last of four events on Rep. Paul Ryan's "listening tour" of his district Thursday, he called on a man in the front row of a high school auditorium, then instantly recognized him.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan speaks at Franklin High School, as he tours throughout his district over the Easter recess, sometimes making five stops in a day.
"You changed clothes!" Ryan told Steve Jozefczyk. The 54-year old salesman from Franklin, Wis., had asked Ryan several critical questions from the front row of an event six hours earlier in Waterford, when he wore a shirt and tie. In Greenfield, it was a black "Faux News" parody T-shirt.
Josefczyk admitted trying to trick Ryan into calling on him again. But Ryan listened anyway. "You have to look at the revenue side and the expense side. And you're afraid to touch revenues," he told the House Budget Committee chairman.
It's a common question, and Ryan has a common response: "Broaden the base," he says. By eliminating tax deductions and shelters for top-earners, "you can shrink or flatten the tax rates for everybody."
PHOTO: Paul Ryan conducts a 'listening tour'
With Congress wrapping up a two-week Easter break, lawmakers across the country have been back home meeting with constituents.
The budget — and especially Medicare — is the hot topic everywhere, nowhere more so than in Ryan's southern Wisconsin district. Ryan is the architect of a GOP budget plan that would fundamentally remake the health care program for seniors.
In the district that has elected the 41-year-old congressman seven times, constituents — especially older ones — were largely supportive. The first comment at the first of four stops Thursday — a mostly friendly room in the basement of Waterford Village Hall — came from Ken Thiede, 68-year-old retiree from Rochester, Wis.
"Your opponents are using Scare-Care," Thiede said. "I give you an 'A' for cojones."
Ryan demurred at the word, but the audience laughed. "It's a German term," Thiede said.
Some of the most pointed questions were along the lines of those posed by Amy Kinosian, a 58-year-old fifth-grade teacher from Eagle, Wis.
"Did you vote for both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did you vote for any offsetting budget cuts?" she asked. "You voted for Medicare Part D — again with no funding."
Ryan said he did vote for the wars and for Medicare Part D — the prescription drug program passed by a Republican congress in 2003. In fact, he said, it should be a model for what he wants to do to Medicare as a whole.
With Part D, Medicare subsidizes a number of competing prescription drug plans, which older Americans can choose from. The Congressional Budget Office has said the cost of that plan is 41% lower than expected.
Extending that competition to all of Medicare will bring down health care costs, he said — especially if health insurance companies can sell plans across state lines like other types of insurers. "You can't watch TV for an hour without having a gecko lizard thingy trying to sell you car insurance," he says in an oft-repeated laugh line.
Beginning in 2022, Ryan's plan would ask new retirees to select a health insurance plan from among a list approved by the government, which would provide a subsidy to the provider. But guaranteed benefits would be eliminated.
At each stop, Ryan asks for a show of hands from those 55 and older. (At least four-fifths were.) They wouldn't be affected, he said.
"But what about mine!" heckled a prematurely balding young man in the back of the room in Greenfield, Wis. He declined to give his name.
Democrats have seized on moments like these as evidence that there's a backlash developing against Ryan's budget. After Ryan was booed at an earlier town hall, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi issued a statement: "Chairman Ryan, the people, including your constituents, are talking. Are you listening?"
Ryan said he is. And while he couldn't identify any input that would cause him to rethink his plan, he said, "I never look at these budgets as a fait accompli." The budget resolution hasn't gotten to the Senate, and many of the details would get worked out in follow-up bills.
The crowds are reminiscent of the congressional town hall meetings in the summer of 2009, as Democrats defended the health insurance law known as the Affordable Care Act. "The size is as high, and the passion is as high," Ryan told USA TODAY.
Ryan had 19 public events scheduled for Congress's Easter break — many in capacity-filled rooms throughout his district. They started last week in libraries and senior centers, but by Thursday several had to be moved into high school gymnasiums to accommodate larger crowds. In Waterford, dozens who arrived 20 minutes early were turned away. In Oak Creek, 30 people stood in the lobby after a 220-seat courtroom filled up. At the last stop, none of the 800 seats in a high school auditorium were left empty.
"Gosh, Waterford, we're lucky if we can get 12 people here for town hall meetings," he told a room of 250 people. So many television stations and networks wanted him to wear wireless microphones that "I look like Batman wearing this," Ryan joked.
Even critics more playful
Ryan asked crowds to show the national media covering the events that Wisconsinites can discuss issues civilly — and they mostly complied. He even had to admit some of the questions were softballs. In Franklin, a man asked how the GOP budget compared to the budget passed last year when Pelosi, D-Calif., was speaker.
"They didn't have a budget last year," Ryan said. "But I take it that was a set-up question."
Even some of his critics were more playful than critical of him. Kinosian, the fifth-grade teacher, said she supports an alternate budget proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which she said is "just as gutsy" as the Ryan plan.
"Obviously, they're not as boyishly handsome as you are," she said.