During the Easter recess, House Republicans have been holding town hall meetings around the country to explain a bold and controversial budget proposal from Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan that would cut some $6 trillion in federal spending over 10 years and reform entitlement programs like Medicare.
The public is more concerned now than ever before about the disastrous state of the nation's finances, as evidenced in the number of people that attended the town halls.
Wisconsin resident Al Smith wasn't sure about the details, but praised Ryan for his efforts. "He's the only one who seems to have any idea of how to go forward," Smith said. "Whether it's right or wrong I don't know. That's what I'm here to find out."
Labor unions and activist groups opposed to one aspect or another of the Ryan plan, which passed the House before Easter, admitted to dispatching people to the meetings to turn up the heat on lawmakers.
A director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) told Politico that his group sent national staffers into 10 states. A Milwaukee Labor Council secretary said her group had a traveling band of seniors going to one town hall after another.
Liberal group MoveOn.org says Republicans are casting blame instead of taking responsibility for their actions.
"MoveOn is encouraging our members to attend town halls and talk to their elected representatives," Executive Director Justin Ruben said in a statement. "Republicans dismiss this anger at their peril. If they don't want to hear from angry constituents, they should reconsider their plan to end Medicare."
Ryan, of course, argues his plan will save the program, not end it.
While many meetings were respectful efforts to understand parts of the Republican plan, some did get rowdy. At one town hall in Florida with Rep. Daniel Webster, one woman screamed as she beat her chest. "I'm tired of it! He's not doing the job he's supposed to do to represent me! I'm tired of it!"
But that outburst was followed by one elderly gentleman who rose to say, "Let him speak," at which point a couple of dozen people rose and chanted "Let him speak! Let him Speak!" A police officer intervened, stepping in front of the crowd to plead for a respectful and calm exchange of views.
Another Republican who was heckled, Alan West of Florida, chalked it up to orchestrated efforts by Democratic activists to disrupt the town halls.
"You have websites that are up here in South Florida that are guiding people on how to go in and be an antagonist in our town hall meetings and try to incite some type of reaction so they can get a Youtube moment," West said.
As far as substance is concerned, Ryan argues that his plan is an effort to both reduce spending and save key safety net programs from bankruptcy. He notes that the federal government has promised $99 trillion more in benefits than it can pay, a figure some say is even larger.
"Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security - they're all going bankrupt," he says. "So we've gotta do things to make sure they are solvent and reliable."
Medicare is in the deepest trouble, and it may not have enough money to pay some benefits within a decade.
Ryan would make no changes for those 55-years-old and over. But for those retiring in 2021 and later, instead of having the government pay directly for every medical expense, his plan would pay premiums to private insurance companies and force them to compete for seniors' business.
Benefits would be greater for those who are poor or ill. "More for those have less," as Ryan puts it, "less for those who have more. Doing it this way actually makes Medicare solvent."
And even some who didn't agree with all his ideas, praised him for tackling the problem. At one town hall, a man named Jim Fowler told Ryan "I personally appreciate the courage that you've shown in taking on a very tough and politically dangerous issue," which brought applause from the crowd.
Democrats, including President Obama, argue Ryan would destroy Medicare instead of saving it.
"It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn't worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck - you're on your own," the president said. "Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it."
What the president does not say is that his own plan will force major changes in Medicare as well because otherwise, the program cannot survive. The Obama plan would cut some $500 billion from the program and use the money to create another entitlement program that analysts say will also be seriously underfunded. Among other things, the president's plan establishes a board that will impose mandatory reductions in benefits as needed to hold down the soaring costs of Medicare.
One thing is clear -- Medicare as it now exists is unsustainable with tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded promises. It simply cannot survive without major changes.
No matter which plan takes hold, those under 55 will face a very different Medicare than the one we have today.