WASHINGTON — Members of Congress across the country were greeted by rather unusual lunch dates Wednesday at noon when they left their offices for a midday meal.
Waiting outside with brown paper lunch bags, progressive Democrats, anti-war groups and nurses associations gathered at about 65 congressional offices nationwide, urging their representatives to stop federal spending on warfare and increase funds for health care.
“Activists are doing everything from having lunch with representatives to standing outside where they’re a little less friendly about us barging in, to having very intimate discussions them,” said Donna Smith, a member of Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), and a community organizer who is spearheading the movement in Washington.
Called “brown bag lunch vigils,” these gatherings are in some ways a response to the conservative tea party movement.
“We’re countering all these ‘teabagger’ efforts, showing that there are an awful lot more ‘brownbaggers’ out here who are extremely concerned about this nation spending more and more on war,” said Smith, who is also a national co-chair for PDA’s “Healthcare NOT Warfare” campaign.
While “brownbaggers” held vigils at congressional district offices, Smith visited the Capitol Hill offices of the same Congress members Wednesday morning delivering letters describing the movement’s goals.
Brownbaggers are asking representatives to reject any bill that will fund wars, to support an exit strategy in Afghanistan, and to prohibit a surge in U.S. troops.
“The wars are so costly and taking money away from everything that we need, including education, health care and environmental efforts,” said Mike Hersh, the PDA state coordinator in Maryland. “Demanding “Medicare-for-all,” brownbaggers urged Congress to pass an amendment for state-level, single-payer healthcare.
“A Medicare-for-all type system would be an economic stimulus,” said Dr. Bill Honigman, a physician who helped organize the vigils in California. “It would put a whole lot of people to work, and many resources are currently wasted for insurance claims processing, advertising and that kind of thing.”
Though brownbaggers advocate sweeping health care reform, officials at some congressional offices asked for some smaller, concrete steps.
“I think people are looking for a solution that is narrower than the whole health care reform,” said Gary M. Cohen, the senior adviser to Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., during a discussion with Smith. “What else can we do?”
According to Smith, members of Congress should promote better reporting by insurance companies.
“Every insurer should report how many claims they are denying, in addition to the basis of denial,” she said. “Once we have evidence, we can make informed decisions.”
The brownbag movement began last month when PDA organized vigils at 22 congressional district offices. The vigils, which will be held on the third Wednesday of every month, gained momentum Wednesday.
“The energy is really growing,” said Smith, who expects activists in more than 100 districts to participate next month. She said that more attention will turn to vigils on Capitol Hill once representatives return to Washington from recess.
Smith predicts the discussions will eventually spread to the Senate level, though for the moment, brownbaggers are focusing on the House.
“The House tends to be the people’s house, the place where we can touch our representatives most closely,” she said. “It’s where we can make the biggest difference.”
Brownbag activists said that their movement takes a different approach than the tea party movement.“Teabaggers are a little bit behind the times,” said Honigman. “We were doing that back in the Bush years, having loud, mass demonstrations and protests. Now we’re taking our message to the communities, trying to elevate the discussion so that people can do the right thing. We’re showing members of Congress that they have our support.”
Describing her efforts as “friendly fire,” Smith said the brownbag vigils are meant to be positive experiences for all participants.
“If representatives are open to having a discussion with their constituents, we want to sit down with them and do that,” she said. “What better way than to share a sandwich, an apple and a one-on-one talk about what we’d like the nation to be?”
Brownbag activists hoped to inspire change from the ground up.
“People need to rise up and take control here,” said Honigman. “We have to lead the leaders, and so that’s what we intend to do.”