Hide and Speak: Taking the Place Of Town Halls?

Billy House

Next week’s congressional recess is formally called a “constituent work week” by the House. That name implies the traditional recess activity of hosting town-hall meetings and fielding questions from constituents.

But now, more and more lawmakers are ditching face-to-face meetings in favor of “virtual” ones held over the telephone or Internet. Whether this is an achievement for participatory democracy or a way for lawmakers to avoid potentially unpleasant interaction with angry voters is debatable.

“Let’s just say I know of a number of members who eagerly avoid real town halls and substitute them with tele-town halls,” offered Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who says he holds about 30 live events annually. He also does some gatherings by phone.

He is not the only one to notice a trend, although detailed data is somewhat elusive. No House official claims to track such information.

At least one outside group billed as nonpartisan, No Labels, set out before the August recess to determine exactly how many members were holding public events during that break. Its activists reported speaking to all of the then-430 House members and finding that only 44 percent conducted constituent meetings, though the study did not offer whether virtual gatherings replaced live ones. There was no partisan divide.

The group stated: “It’s a sad sign of the state of affairs when our elected officials don’t have time to meet with their constituents.”

There are varied reasons for this political hide-and-speak—and some go well beyond the security concerns that peaked early last year when a man shot former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and massacred attendees of her public event in Tucson.

Sharp partisan divides and low congressional approval ratings make some members wary of constituents who eagerly await public sessions to give them the business—whether that be protests, shouts, or simple, tough, cross-examination. By holding impersonal events, members can make automated calls to invite participants. They can also reach more people by allowing the citizenry to participate through 800- numbers accessible to anyone.

Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., boasted in a press release of having been joined by 7,499 residents on a March 29 call in which he discussed budgetary and economic issues. He did so, he said, to be more accessible to more voters, not to avoid them.

“It allows seniors without transportation and busy people who might be just getting home from work or can’t find a babysitter to participate in our democracy and hear diverse viewpoints from other communities in our large district,” he said.

A 2009 academic report concluded that online town halls reach constituents, including those who otherwise do not attend personal events, effectively. However, “we would certainly not recommend that traditional means of communication with constituents be abandoned,” the report stated.

John Pitney Jr., a Claremont McKenna College government professor and former Republican staffer, agrees that such events can enhance outreach. However, he said, untraditional gatherings may create an environment that is too guarded or contrived, diminishing the democratic process a bit; politicians may be spared embarrassment as staffers can screen calls or slip answers to a not-so-fast-on-his-feet boss without attendees being any the wiser. What’s missing, he added, is that ability for constituents to look members in the eye and see if they really know their stuff.

Other developments have emerged that make watchdog groups cringe far worse.

Last year some members, such as House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., reportedly outsourced live public events to third parties who charged entry fees—a way not only to raise money but to exclude undesirables.

Freshman Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., who has stirred plenty of controversy during all manner of public events, sometimes uses virtual methods “to complement” outreach, particularly “if we’re [in Washington] for a long period of time and we’re not back in our district,” he said.

“But every time I’m back in the district I have [real] town hall meetings. I want to get out there. I’m not afraid of dealing with my constituency,” he said.
“But then, I’ve been in combat,” said West, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel.

House Democrats collectively hold about 500 public events monthly, though not all are “town halls,” according to a party spokesman. House Republican officials did not provide an estimate of the numbers of their members’ events.