Last week, I momentarily felt honored, like the Queen invited me to her court.
Well, not really. But after seven years of representing me in the Legislature and Congress, I finally got my first call from Michele Bachmann, inviting me to engage in a question-and-answer session with her.
OK, not exactly. I got an anonymous robo-call from somewhere telling me to stay on the line and I could participate in a tele-town forum with the congresswoman. A few seconds later, I became party to a conversation between Bachmann and another caller.
Well, sort of. I could hear both sides of their conversation, but I couldn’t participate in it. Eventually, robo-voice advised me to press “star-three” to signal that I wished to ask the congresswoman a question myself. So I did, and thus began a 25-minute wait through an endless stream of friendly callers that ended abruptly without me ever getting to talk to Michele.
Welcome to constituent service, Bachmann style.
Tele-Town Hall is one such service offered since 2004 by a Washington, D.C.-based telecommunications company using voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP). It’s described by its founder as “the next step in mass personalized communications” and works like this:
Using a list provided by the politician, random calls are made to up to 200,000 households in their district using an automated system that can dial up to 6,000 numbers a minute. If the call is answered, a pre-recorded message tells the recipient to stay on the line to participate in the call. If an answering machine or voicemail is reached, a message is left informing them of the call they missed. The calls are spontaneous with no advance notice, and constituents do not need to sign up to receive them.
Typically, between 200 and 1,000 constituents stay on for a portion of the call. As many as 12,000 people at a time can participate either by just listening in or by getting in line to ask a question. The calls last about 40 minutes, long enough for eight to 10 questions.
Upon their completion, Tele-Town Hall e-mails the politician details about who accepted their call, who asked questions, who wanted to ask questions but couldn’t, and who was left voicemail messages. iConstituent, a similar service, will send the politician an MP3 recording of the entire call.
Participants also can be surveyed on issues during the conversation. Responses are registered using the telephone touchpad and then are matched to households for future use.
Tele-Town Hall charges $2,500 for the first 25,000 phone calls answered per event; each answered call beyond that costs 7 cents.
Republicans were the first to embrace the use of tele-town hall technology and, according to media reports, continue to dominate its use. Bachmann and her Republican mentor in the 2nd District, Rep. John Kline, appear to be the only members of the Minnesota congressional delegation to use it so far.
Constituent contact — or avoidance?
Our 6th District congresswoman isn’t known for her robust communication with constituents — at least those not on her list of supporters. In fact, Bachmann has nurtured a reputation over the years for not communicating with constituents at all, unless it serves to promote herself or her agenda in some way. Rare is the constituent who disagrees with Michele Bachmann and receives even an acknowledgement of a letter, email or phone call.
In that spirit, Bachmann has not had one public town hall meeting in her district since being elected. And when she has appeared on local talk radio call-in shows, she has refused to take calls.
A tele-town hall is more to Bachmann’s liking, and a lot less messy. She can screen every caller’s name and address before allowing them to ask a question, and simply reject or keep on interminable hold those she doesn’t want to talk to. She can have staff at her side awaiting her commands to get answers to questions, rather than having to think on her feet before a live audience. No more worries about getting ambushed at a public meeting by an angry constituent — or having to shake hands with any homosexuals. And no more dealing with those mean media people who are always beating her up.
The calls supposedly are made at random from constituent lists. But amazingly, while Bachmann won in our district with 50.3 percent of the vote — barely half — every one of the seven or eight callers who was allowed to ask a question while I was eavesdropping was clearly a supporter.
In between the softball questions and plaudits for visiting Iraq, Bachmann had ample opportunities to remind us who she was and that she has five kids and 23 foster kids and a small business, so she and her husband know what it’s like to provide food for themselves and raise a family. Kind of like the little commercials you get while you’re on hold with a credit-card company.
Tele-town halls easy to manipulate
Some of the questions begged for a follow-up. But that’s the beauty of a tele-town hall, at least for politicians like Bachmann. If you don’t like the caller’s question, you can just ignore it, answer with something totally irrelevant and move on to the next one with no consequences.
Like the Hugo schoolteacher, who asked Bachmann how local schools could get more funding without going to property taxpayers for levy after levy. Bachmann responded first by making up some inflated figures about the state’s share of school funding (it declined during Bachmann’s tenure in the Legislature from 86.7 percent in 2003-04 to 82.7 percent in 2006-07), and then launched a disjointed rant about how “politicized” public schools are today. The poor teacher is probably still scratching his head.
To be fair, in the hands of a politician truly interested in expanding his or her reach to constituents — and not just cultivating their supporters — tele-town halls could be a useful tool in addition to regular in-person town hall meetings. They afford the opportunity to have at least some semblance of contact with their representative for those who otherwise could not — or would not —venture out to a live town hall meeting.
But if the concept’s early proponents — Bachmann and Kline — are any indication, I fear it will be used for just the opposite.
In Bachmann’s case, it’s clear that the tele-town hall is simply another tool with which to further isolate herself from her constituents, tightly control the dialogue and pursue the agenda of her choice, rather than theirs. Indeed, why concern yourself with such mundane matters as school funding when there are liberals and gays lurking in your children’s classrooms?
Kline has admitted that’s a motivating factor in his decision to use them, saying live town hall meetings have become nothing more than “partisan battlegrounds.” In other words, his opponents can show up there.
Other aspects of these tele-town hall “events” are still murky. Are they considered official public events or campaign events? If public, is a complete transcript for the entire event available to the public? Are records of accepted versus rejected callers available? Are callers screened, and if so, by whom and based on what criteria?
Republicans — in particular, George W. Bush — have mastered the Orwellian art of controlling their public audiences in order to project only positive images of their appearances, to the point of having suspected antagonists arrested simply because of the T-shirts they were wearing. But even troublesome T-shirts are a thing of the past with tele-town halls.
Whether she’s hiding from constituents in a town hall rest room (PDF) or behind the bushes at a state Capitol rally, Michele Bachmann long has shown a similar disdain for those who do not march lockstep with her. With tele-town halls, she now has yet another means by which she can avoid them.
Karl Bremer is a Stillwater writer and longtime constituent of Michele Bachmann. He can be reached at saintcroix [at] aol [dot] com.
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