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Paul Ryan

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Janesville

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan got an earful in the spring, when he came back to Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District to peddle his proposals to restructure Medicare and Social Security in a manner that shifted money away from providing care and security to the elderly and toward bailouts for insurance companies and Wall Street speculators.

The Janesville Republican had peddled his plan with some success in Washington, where House Republicans endorsed it.

But the Ryan scheme proved to be a tough sell at town hall meetings in Milton, Janesville, Elkhorn, Kenosha and other communities across the congressman’s southeastern Wisconsin district. Indeed, the reaction was so negative that it drew national attention and — along with the results of a New York special election for an open congressional seat that was won by a Medicare-defending Democrat — led Republican leaders in Washington to distance themselves from the most draconian of Ryan’s proposals.

Ultimately, Ryan and his allies turned to the strategy of holding the economy hostage by refusing to raise the nation’s debt ceiling until the 11th hour. But that wasn’t very popular either, as congressional approval ratings attest.

So what is Ryan’s response? Not to recognize that his plan is flawed. No way. He thinks the problem is with his constituents. Too many of them came to those town hall meetings and they raised too many tough questions.

During the August recess, Ryan is holding no traditional town hall meetings.

But Ryan’s constituents can still talk to him in person — if they are willing to pay.

Ryan will appear at a late August event where voters can pay $15 to have lunch with the congressman. Those who register in advance, providing their names and background information and writing their checks, might even get to ask their congressman a question.

That’s fine for the pay-to-play crowd.

But the folks on fixed incomes who are most threatened by Ryan’s proposed assaults on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will have to decide whether they can afford to be citizens. Some of them decided Thursday that Ryan’s price was too high. A group of unemployed workers staged a sit-in at his Kenosha office, while others protested outside, chanting “Ryan is a no-show, bring jobs to Kenosha.” The message from one of the largest cities in the district was blunt: “After being denied a meeting with Ryan after multiple requests over the last few weeks, the unemployed men and women have decided to sit down and wait for Congressman Ryan.”

Ryan’s not alone in abandoning traditional town meetings and going the pay-per-view route. But since he is the Budget Committee chair and the leading proponent of a radical (and radically unpopular) restructuring of essential public programs, his decision to engage in toll-booth democracy is especially unsettling — and offensive.

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