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The Case for Town Halls

The GOP has controlled the United States House and Senate for most of 2017. During that time, they have tried to pass deeply unpopular pieces of legislation.

Their take on healthcare was “the most unpopular bill in three decades” (significantly more unpopular than the infamous 2009 TARP bank bailouts). Their tax reform bill is similarly unpopular as it is currently being hurried through the final stages of a secretive legislative process requiring handwritten edits before passage through the Senate:

Trumpcare was almost universally recognized as abjectly terrible legislation. The tax reform bill is also quite shoddy work, with conservative tax experts aghast at the content of the bill and the process by which it is being passed:

“The more you read, the more you go, ‘Holy crap, what’s this?’” said Greg Jenner, a former top tax official in George W. Bush’s Treasury Department. “We will be dealing with unintended consequences for months to come because the bill is moving too fast.”

Who knew that governing could be so difficult? Republican lawmakers have admitted that are getting incredible pressure from their big money donors to pass tax reform, so it’s really not surprise that the bill ends up raising taxes on millions of middle class Americans while reducing corporate tax responsibility.

“Republicans expect that they can stick it to voters and still hold onto power.” — Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

And that’s the problem — most of us can’t call up our legislator and get them to hurry along our favorite legislative priorities.

“Boss” Tweed, expert in the fine art of political influence

The wealthy have a double advantage — not only are they able to pledge big dollars to help a re-election campaign, they are also able to afford lobbyists to follow legislators around and encourage them to pass the right laws.

Most of us, unfortunately, can’t afford a lobbyist.

Traditionally, Senators and Representatives have at least tried to make up some of the difference in access by holding in-person public town halls, where they invite constituents to ask questions and provide comment. These town halls were a sort of performance review of public’s hired employee-representatives.

“Town Hall: A forum where members of Congress give legislative updates and answer open questions from constituents.“ — The Town Hall Project

These meetings were never quite the same as a one-on-one chat with a big donor or a lunch with a well-connected lobbyist, but they were still meaningful opportunities for legislators to listen directly to the general public unfiltered by the media, donor wishes, or protective staffers.

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In addition to serving as cathartic release valves for public frustration, public town halls are important opportunities for citizens to hold their representatives accountable.

While there is no one right way to hold a town hall, most tend to have a few characteristics:

  1. In person —just as lobbyists and donors get to meet with elected officials in person, the public should have the same opportunity. Tele-town halls, Twitter town halls, and video chats do not take the place of a real town hall.
  2. Public and Accountable — ticketed events are okay. Presentations to corporate employees or private tours are fine. Tightly regulated “office hours” are, too. But none of these replaces open public town halls where any constituent can walk in the door and have the opportunity to get a response on the record. Note: If a representative won’t allow recording devices when you meet with them, you can be sure that meeting will never replace a real town hall.
  3. Accessible — held in the evening, after work. Granted, this will exclude those people with graveyard shifts or irregular working hours, but evening town halls allow many working families the opportunity to participate.
  4. Open —the agenda is at least somewhat set by constituents. They are the ones holding their representative accountable, after all. A town hall is not a meeting where a politician gives a speech, hosts a panel discussion among experts, or only allows questions about one topic.
  5. Passionate and a little messy — As much as we’d like to live in the Norman Rockwell utopia of civility and rainbows, we’re not there (and never were). Recently, town halls got pretty passionate in 2009 and again in 2017. Passion is good: it means people care.
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This last point — messiness and occasional incivility — has led to one of the primary excuses for Republicans sudden drop in town halls over the past months. They started the year holding town halls, listening to their constituents’ views on Trumpcare (which, as mentioned before, is one of the least popular bills in decades). After these harrowing experiences, the frequency of their town halls quickly plummeted.

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Chart from Vox.com

In addition to citing incivility as a reason to no longer engage in public town halls, Republicans have listed two other justifications: out-of-district/paid protesters and personal security. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) summarizes the excuses succinctly:

Aside from the obvious security concerns . . . .I don’t want to have a situation where we just have a screaming fest, a shouting fest where people are being bussed in from out of the district to get on TV because they are yelling at somebody.

Similar sentiments were shared by other Republicans, repeating Rep. Ryan’s talking points closely:

Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.):

I am not going to hold town hall meetings in this atmosphere, because they would very quickly turn into shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks and radicals.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.):

As of late, it has become apparent that some individuals who are not really interested in meaningful dialogue attend town halls just to create disruptions and media spectacles.

Rep. Mia Love (R-UT):

I cannot really raise Utah’s voice if I can’t hear above the clutter and the anger.

The problem is, though, these representatives can’t do their job if they hide from the public’s anger. Representatives risk creating their own echo chambers if they only listen to people who are happy and relaxed, who aren’t at risk of losing a job (or a loved one) because of legislation under consideration. And if those desperate and frustrated constituents occasionally raise their voices or lose their cool? It turns out the Constitution doesn’t say “only people who never lose their cool or act uncivilly deserve to be represented.”

“It’s easier to say all these protests are paid than to admit there are wide swaths of people in your district who disagree with how they are represented in Congress,” Sarah Dohl, a spokeswoman for Indivisible told PolitiFact.

The other two excuses — supposed out-of-district paid protesters and personal security — are equally problematic. There is no proof of the former, and the latter hides behind overblown fears as an excuse to not show up to work. The rest of us can’t call our boss and say “keep on employing me and keep paying me but I’m not coming in any more because I’m afraid of workplace shootings.”

Or, as Rep. Gabby Giffords (R-AZ), survivor of terrible gun violence at one of her public events, puts it:

To the politicians who have abandoned their civic obligations, I say this: Have some courage. Face your constituents. Hold town halls.

Republicans are dodging their constituents now, but if we’re not careful, all politicians will soon join in. Town halls aren’t an easy part of the job — would you rather sit with a wealthy donor at a swanky DC restaurant or stand up in front of a bunch of tired neighbors who are mad about your last vote?

One of the biggest problems in American politics right now is that our elected officials are better at representing money and connection than they are at representing us. We don’t need an official study to confirm this — we can tell. But, just in case, there’s a study confirming it:

In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover … even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

Senators and Representatives already spend most of their time asking wealthy people for money and hobnobbing with lobbyists. Their work, as tilted toward wealth and influence as it is, serves as proof enough.

They should at least be expected to show up every once and a while and answer a few questions from the rest of us.

Town halls represent one of the last opportunities for We the People to engage directly with the people we’ve chosen to represent us. No clever use of technology or choreographed charade will be able to replace the beautiful cacophony of the public trying to hold their government accountable in a crowded high school auditorium.

Written by

PhD in Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media. Democracy junkie. Father of three.

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