In a rare congressional town hall in North Texas on Saturday, U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, withstood two hours of booing from hundreds of angry constituents at a local high school.
It was notable that Burgess was there in the flesh; many of his colleagues have avoided such events during the congressional recess, choosing virtual discussions over rowdy and combative public forums with residents outraged over the Trump administration's recent policies.
Like other similar events across the country, most of the attendees at Burgess' town hall were upset over Republican plans to repeal — and possibly replace — the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's signature health care law. Almost no answer Burgess gave on health reform was accepted by Saturday's audience.
The individual mandate "doesn't have a place in a free society," said Burgess, who has taken the Republican lead on reforming health care in the House. "It would be great if it was working, right?" he added.
"So fix it," a member of the audience called out, cutting through boos that filled the Marcus High School gym.
The audience didn't like Burgess' use of the word "likely" — "likely" that young people would get to stay on their parents' insurance plans until age 26, and "likely" that preexisting conditions would not prevent coverage. They didn't seem to like each other much, either — some booed while others shouted for them to "shut up."
Burgess knew what he was walking into. Before the meeting began, he paced the floor for a few moments, hovered around the podium and made small talk with attendees as constituents filed into the room carrying signs reading "do no harm," "hands off my health care" and "don't repeal the ACA."
People fill the gym at Flower Mound Marcus High School for a town hall meeting held by U.S. Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Lewisville, on March 4, 2017. Cooper Neill for The Texas Tribune
While health care dominated the conversation, constituents also expressed concerns about reported connections between the Trump's administration and Russia. A Frisco woman — a registered Republican — raised the issue.
"We are not troublemakers. We are concerned citizens," she said. "We're beginning to feel very unsafe. It is not fake news."
Others asked about President Trump's tax returns. Burgess said if Congress were to compel the president to release his, it could do it to anyone.
"That's OK," a man in the audience yelled as boos rang throughout the room.
Another attendee said she was disturbed that Trump had rescinded guidelines Obama had set to protect transgender students in public schools, in light of Texas state leaders' efforts to limit transgender students to the school bathrooms associated with their biological sex. She asked what Burgess would do to make sure those students are safe.
Burgess said the federal government should not have stepped in in the first place, and that the states can and should offer those protections. He clarified his position during a press conference after the meeting.
"I think the decision is one that's best left to the local level," he told The Texas Tribune. "I think our schools and our school districts... had been doing an exemplary job of quietly dealing with the problem and nobody was embarrassed, nobody was singled out for one thing or another. I think it would have been better to continue that policy."
Then Obama took a stance on the issue and put it under a spotlight, the congressman said.
"No one was asking for it at the time," he said. "And it seemed to be politically motivated."
Burgess declined to offer his personal position on the bathroom debate.
"I don't think you want your member of Congress deciding which bathroom you can use," he said.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/03/04/healthcare-sets-tone-texas-congressmans-contentious-town-hall/.
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