If anything became clear during U.S. Rep. Henry Brown's town hall meeting Thursday night, it's that the vocal chords of many Lowcountry voters are perfectly healthy indeed.
Brown, R-S.C., called the 1 1/2- hour meeting primarily to hear from those with concerns about the unfolding national health care reform debate, and he got an earful on that topic as about 500 people crowded into the Charleston Area Convention Center.
He also was peppered with other questions, some spoken into a microphone and other simply hollered out loud, regarding his pay raise, his thoughts on congressional earmarks, on whether America is becoming a socialist nation and why Congress wasn't fixing Social Security first.
The evening's extremes ranged from a thoughtful exchange between Brown and a local doctor to a shouting match over whether President Barack Obama was planning to create a national police force with the same level of funding as the military.
When asked about that police force, Brown replied, "I have not heard that, but nothing surprises me coming from this administration."
That's when an audience member shouted, "That is extremist talk! It's a shame you're letting that go!"
The man who asked the original question then shouted back: "It's the truth!"
Brown then announced that he would field only one more question.
Dr. Shanon Honney of Charleston Internal Medicine had a few exchanges with Brown, drawing applause when she noted she never has turned a patient away because he or she couldn't pay. "How do we stop these evil people in Washington from ruining our health care?" she asked.
Brown later asked Honney if she could confer with the American Medical Association and get back to him about whether the federal tax code could be changed to encourage doctors to provide more charitable care.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said one of the three ground rules for the night was "no disruptive attitudes," but that didn't stop many people from yelling comments or questions -- and Brown occasionally answered them in between those who bothered to write theirs out on the provided yellow cards.
One woman asked Brown about his plan for covering the millions of uninsured, many of whom have jobs. Brown said he didn't have a pat answer for how to help those who fall through Medicaid's cracks and added, "First, we've got to make sure they help themselves first."
Some of the evening was spent debating whether a questioner's information was accurate, including how much administrative overhead is involved with Medicare versus private health insurance companies. "I will tell you Medicare in six to seven years is going to be flat broke," Brown said.
Jim Tilson of Seabrook Island asked Brown if he would commit to opposing any bill with earmarks. Brown said there are good and bad earmarks, adding, "I just feel if I went up there and didn't petition for help for my constituents, I might just as well stay home."
While the audience's questions and responses proved that Republicans and conservatives were in the vast majority, a few Democrats asked questions or made brief statements too, including a woman who noted, "The economy is showing signs of improvement," triggering a loud round of hooting.
Brown said he wanted Democrats' questions as well as Republicans because "I still represent them, and I still honor their opinion."
Brown, whose close 2008 re-election contest has led to speculation about his prospects for next year, spoke at a podium as one his potential GOP primary opponents, Charleston businessman Carroll Campbell III, stood silently in the back of the exhibit hall dressed in a blue suit and red tie very much like Brown's.
Meanwhile, a Democratic group called Brown's health care record "shameless."
Jessica Santillo, Southern regional press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, noted that Brown has voted against expanding the State Children's Health Insurance program and on the health care funding proposed in the $787 billion stimulus bill.
"At his health care town hall tonight, Representative Brown should apologize for using misleading attacks to scare seniors and protect the status quo of skyrocketing health care costs," she said in an earlier statement. "Representative Brown has a shameful record on health care, even voting against providing health care to South Carolina children."