‘Town hall’ meetings mostly draw angry people. Should members of Congress hold them anyway?

REUTERS/Mike Segar
Today, U.S. politics is in the grip of a town hall moment, as those upset and dissatisfied with President Donald Trump’s policies and conduct demand meetings with their elected representatives.

What’s more American than the town hall meeting? Open debate, confrontation of those in power, yelling — town hall meetings, where communities gather for discussion and debate of the day’s issues, have it all, and they’ve persisted as a civic practice throughout U.S. history.

There’s a specific kind of town hall that gets the most attention these days, however: one in a school auditorium or coffee shop or library, where a member of Congress stands before his or her constituents and answers their questions about what’s going on in Washington.

The demand for congressional town halls has ebbed and flowed over time, but there’s one constant: when people are especially angry or afraid with what’s going on in Washington, they clamor for an audience with their representative.

Today, U.S. politics is in the grip of a town hall moment, as those upset and dissatisfied with President Donald Trump’s policies and conduct demand meetings with their elected representatives.

This year has seen plenty of heated town halls, and they’ve generated headlines: a New Jersey Republican with a role writing the GOP’s health care bill took questions from emotional and angry constituents for nearly five hours; GOP representatives from New York to Louisiana to Idaho have faced hostile crowds, protests, and boos back home.

Other Republican representatives, including two of Minnesota’s, have declined to hold in-person, open-to-the-public town halls, despite demands from angry constituents.

In the era of Trump, the town hall has become the channel through which people vent their political grievances, whether it actually takes place or not. Why is that, and will the humble community gathering continue to have such an outsized role in the political landscape?

‘Representatives ought to return home’

From the beginning, the architects of the U.S. political system believed that interaction between members of Congress and the constituencies they represent was essential to the functioning of government.

Wikimedia Commons
Sen. Roger Sherman liked to mix it up
with the people.

Roger Sherman, a Connecticut delegate to the Philadelphia constitutional convention, said that “Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people,” or else they would “acquire the habits” of the capital city.

Early representatives had their share of run-ins with constituents. Henry Clay, the 19th century Kentucky senator and House speaker, met with constituents after he took an unpopular vote to raise pay for members of Congress. Using an analogy — would you throw out a good rifle that malfunctioned once? — he convinced one man to reconsider his point of view.

For most of Congress’ history, however, lawmakers spent most of their time in Washington. Part of this was due to the prohibitive difficulty of frequent travel home. But electoral pressure was also much weaker then, and constituents didn’t expect a constant presence back home, nor did they think that was necessary to perform well as a legislator.

According to Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute and a former congressional chief of staff,  “There was a time when it was a big deal when your member of Congress showed up in your district. That time wasn’t so long ago.”

What changed? A number of factors, explains Harkins: for one, the shock of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s increased constituent interest in Washington goings-on, and a more saturated media environment meant that voters were equipped with more comprehensive information.

The last quarter of the 20th century also saw the rise of the “permanent campaign” in Congress: faced with greater electoral pressure, lawmakers began to devote much more time to fundraising and showing face in their districts.

Mark Harkins

As members came to spend less and less time in Washington, Harkin says, town halls became a useful resource for lawmakers, particularly less senior ones, to make appearances in the district and increase their name brand among constituents.

These could be, for the most part, pretty benign, low-key affairs. Harkins says that started changing in the 1990s: in the first two years of his term, President Bill Clinton was unpopular, and Harkins — then a congressional aide — recalls Democratic congressmen facing a newly hostile environment at home.

“I still remember ‘94, Democrats having to be escorted out of town hall meetings to cars by uniformed police,” he says, explaining that some constituents were deeply opposed to Clinton’s stances on abortion and health care reform.

“I remember town halls, for the first time, having negative implications for the member. There was reason to think about whether to have a town hall or not.”

Tea Party ups the ante

The notion of the town hall as a venue for constituents to vent against an unpopular president or an unpopular policy would only grow over time. As the public went sour on George W. Bush’s War in Iraq, Republican members of Congress faced town halls full of vocal opponents of the war.

In 2009 and 2010, Democrats were on the town hall hot seat again, facing a conservative base energized by its intense opposition to Barack Obama, his $800 billion package to stimulate the economy, and his signature health care law. The infamous Obamacare town halls were packed with activists and outside protesters, which helped give rise to the Tea Party movement.

First District Rep. Tim Walz, who took office in 2007, was one of the Democratic members who agreed to appear before angry constituents to talk about the health care law. (Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum did so as well.)

In an interview, Walz recalled his first health care town hall in Mankato. “There were thousands of people there, protestors with the Hitler mustache on Obama signs… I knew it was not going to be pleasant. I very much believed that it needed to be done.”

Many Democrats who supported Obamacare faced bad press resulting from their town halls, and plenty of them are no longer in Congress today.

That’s the cautionary tale that now confronts congressional Republicans, who have to reckon with an unpopular president and a health care overhaul that’s proving at least as unpopular as Obamacare was in 2009.

Harkins says the vitriol of the 2017 round of town halls has more in common with 1994 than anything else. The Iraq War and Obamacare town halls centered around issues, he said. This climate, he says, is characterized by “true personal animus.”

‘Clamoring’ for the town halls

Since Trump took office, Minnesota’s Democrats have been more than happy to appear in front of constituents to address their concerns and show some force against the administration and the Republican Congress.

So far this year, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Reps. Ellison, McCollum, Walz, and Rick Nolan have held public town halls with opportunities for constituents to ask them questions.

These events, Walz said, have attracted constituents who are opposed to Trump and the GOP agenda in Congress. “The people who show up at town halls tend to be from the party that doesn’t have the presidency,” he said. “These almost exclusively, 90-plus percent, have been concerned with President Trump’s agenda.”

For a Democratic lawmaker, then, town halls in the Trump era present a perfect opportunity to present yourself to your constituents as a fighter and a check on executive power. So far, Democratic lawmakers have gotten resoundingly positive receptions: at Walz’s February town hall in Rochester, he was greeted with a standing ovation; McCollum got the same treatment at her March event in St. Paul.

The story has been different with Minnesota’s Republicans: this year, Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen have not held town hall events open to the public. Activists in the 3rd District believe Paulsen has not had such an event since 2011; Lewis, a freshman, has quipped that he doesn’t want to hold the first Democratic campaign rally of the 2018 election cycle.

Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer broke with his Republican colleagues by hosting a town hall event in Sartell in February. Emmer is a prolific holder of town halls; his office says he has done 25 of them since entering Congress in 2015.

Reports of raucous activity at Republican town halls prompted Emmer’s office to issue a warning ahead of his February event, which declared that any disruptive events would end the town hall meeting. “Behavior that goes beyond the bounds of civil discourse is threatening to drive into extinction the civic institution known as a town hall meeting,” the statement read.

By most accounts, however, Emmer’s town hall featured heated argument, but went smoothly overall.

Replacing the town hall

Those who haven’t held town halls say they engage with constituents in other ways. Paulsen’s office said that he has held “over 100 town hall events reaching hundreds of thousands of constituents since taking office.”

But they aren’t the kind of town halls you might think of. Members generously apply the town hall label to their methods of constituent outreach, even if they have little in common with a traditional town hall. Paulsen’s office includes in its town hall count so-called telephone town halls, in which constituents’ phone numbers are dialed, and they are offered the chance to participate in a talk with the congressman.

Several thousand constituents could be on a call, and they have the opportunity to submit questions for the lawmaker to respond to. But critics say it offers little opportunity for a back-and-forth discussion, and that a lawmaker’s aides can screen questions.

Lewis told MinnPost that he’s done plenty of roundtable events with constituents, and he did not rule out doing a town hall at some point. Paulsen has had one-on-one meetings with constituents, including Democratic-aligned activists, but his office did not say whether or not any town hall event is in the works.

Their Democratic colleagues, however, argue that tele-town halls and small group meetings, while useful, are no replacement for the traditional, open-forum town hall.

Ellison, who calls himself a “town hall kind of guy,” told MinnPost “You gotta do the thing that allows whomever shall come to come. You gotta be open to your constituents… I don’t begrudge any member for making sure it’s a safe environment. But just because someone hurt your feelings because they criticize you harshly, that’s not a good enough excuse.” (Ellison’s office says the congressman has done 53 town hall events open to the public since 2014.)

For Republicans, the prospect of holding a loud, raucous event filled with antagonistic activists has soured them on the idea.

But Walz said that shouldn’t change anything. He said the Tea Party used town halls to organize resistance to Democrats, and were often boisterous. “My opponents were showing up at them,” he said. “It doesn’t change the fact that you have a responsibility to do it.”

Consequences of not showing?

In Minnesota, the clamoring for a town hall might be loudest in Paulsen’s 3rd District. The affluent west metro suburbs have voted to send Paulsen to Congress every cycle since 2008, but preferred Hillary Clinton over Trump by a nine-point margin in 2016.

Paulsen faced a lot of heat back home for his vote in favor of the GOP’s health care bill; any tweet from Paulsen’s official Twitter account is clogged with replies from angry constituents demanding a town hall. Such an event would likely draw hundreds, if not thousands, of constituents.

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
3rd District activists held a town hall style event “with our without” Rep. Erik Paulsen. (It turned out to be “without.”)

At this point, however, activists in CD3 do not have high hopes they’ll get a chance to directly ask Paulsen a question in a town hall setting.

Clara Severson is the co-chair of CD3’s chapter of Indivisible, a group that formed after the election to resist Trump. Her group has organized protests outside Paulsen’s district office demanding a town hall; in February, activists organized a “with or without him” town hall that drew 600 people. CD2 activists staged a similar event.

“I wish I could say we have made some progress, but it’s become pretty clear that Erik Paulsen has no interest in addressing his constituents publicly,” Severson told MinnPost.

Severson met with Paulsen at his district office, but says she is convinced he will not change his style of communicating. “We’re going to move forward with trying to educate the district with his voting record,” she said.

If no public town halls occur in either of these districts, will voters remember in November 2018, when all House members are up for re-election — or will they even care? People like Severson believe Paulsen will face consequences for not appearing at a town hall; some Republicans say holding these events will not appease activists and just add fuel to the fire, and run the risk of generating bad press.

Walz believes that doing town halls in the difficult 2009-2010 environment actually helped his political fortunes. “I’m convinced I won in 2010 because I did them,” he said. “I believe that changed the narrative of who I was… I didn’t have a brand. I think that brand got solidified.”

The town hall is, without doubt, part of the U.S. democratic tradition, and it’s now a part of congressional tradition, too. But Georgetown’s Harkins says we’ll soon find out how much it really matters to some voters.

“I’m never going to second-guess a member trying to figure out their own district,” Harkins said of lawmakers deciding whether or not to hold town halls. “We’ll know if it’s a miscalculation in 18 months. It’ll be fairly obvious.”

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/01/2017 - 12:27 pm.

    It really shows the bubble that many of the Representatives live in where they cannot understand the importance of getting an issue like health-care right for their constituents. Obamacare only came about because of rising dissatisfaction with the cost, quality and access of healthcare and the limitations imposed by the insurance marketplace. A decade later, going back to the pre-Obamacare model with now even higher costs, much less access and more insurance limitations is not responsive to current needs, let alone responsive to the pre-Obamacare needs. But the dead-headed “Obamacare bad” idea persists among the Republicans who are set on cutting heath-care to produce tax cuts for the wealthy do deserve hostile meetings.

    It’s a representative democracy–they’re our direct Representatives. If they don’t want to to take the heat, they should get out of the kitchen.

    Snowflakes.

  2. Submitted by Allan Wilson on 06/01/2017 - 12:36 pm.

    Yes

    The answer to today’s insipid question is Yes. Whenever they give you a chance to vote or express your opinion, let them have it with both barrels. The rest of their time is devoted to listening to “special interests” (gag).

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/01/2017 - 01:47 pm.

    A No Brainer

    Of course they should. Why would there be any question about it?

    Members of Congress are supposed to represent everyone in their districts, and hear everyone’s opinion, regardless of whether they agree or disagree.

  4. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/01/2017 - 03:08 pm.

    Paulsen

    For crying out loud, it’s 2 hours, once a year of having to deal with the folks with axes and pitchforks. I listened in on Paulsen’s last phony, phone in town hall. He is plenty articulate enough to defend his positions, right or wrong. It is his total attitude of condescension on his part that drives me crazy: You are not the Prince of the Third District, take your town hall medicine and then have a nice dinner with your favorite backers at Interlachen afterwards, you’ll feel better in the morning.

  5. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 06/01/2017 - 03:50 pm.

    Leading v Following

    These meetings would be a good time to teach manners. If someone is only there to yell and scream, either kick them out or ignore them. We need dialogue, and if people are not there to discuss both sides of an issue, they are there for themselves only.

    Obamacare has two sides. Global warming has two sides. Abortion has two sides. The refugee issue has two sides. The Paris Accord has two sides. We have to figure out why we can’t sit down and talk about issues such as these without yelling, disgusted that the ‘other side’ is not on board with what is ‘obviously’ the correct opinion.

    Tom Emmer is really good at these meetings. He will interrupt someone who is yelling at him and tell them he will talk to them if they are civil. He is civil, too. Whether or not you agree with him, he is a role model when it comes to the contentious behavior between the parties.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/01/2017 - 04:48 pm.

      Two Sides

      “Global warming has two sides.” No, it doesn’t,, anymore than gravity has two sides.

      All other issues may have multiple sides. To say it’s always or even usually a matter of for/against is a gross oversimplification.

      • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 06/01/2017 - 05:35 pm.

        But it does…

        Global warming has two sides.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/02/2017 - 09:41 am.

          Legitimate sides

          You can say that any issue has two sides, but it’s important to recognize that “sides” are not always equal or legitimate. So yes, we have a scientific consensus that vaccines do NOT cause or significantly increase the risk of autism, and there is another “side” that claims otherwise; but treating both sides as equal is a toxic and irresponsible discussion.

          So to with Climate Change, we have one “side” based on overwhelming evidence and consensus concluding that the planet is warming, and that human activity had tipped the balance. Then there is an other “side” that simply denies the scientific observations. While both “sides”may exist, they are not equal, and the assumption that both sides must be part of the conversation doesn’t promote rational discourse, it promotes irrational discourse and normalizes ignorance and irrationality… hence Trumps stupid policy decisions.

          • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 06/02/2017 - 11:43 am.

            Bringing people together vs firming sides

            So, per the article, it sounds like you are unable to have a civil discussion with someone who does not believe in global warming or human-caused global warming.

            What if this person you are talking to truly does not know any better and you lead with calling Trump and his policies ‘Stupid.’ You have just lost the opportunity to extend an olive leaf to the ‘other side.’

            • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/02/2017 - 01:40 pm.

              I can have a civil conversation with anyone

              Trump is the president of the United States, he has a responsibility to educate himself before making presidential decisions. There is no excuse for Trump’s ignorance, therefore his decision AND his ignorance are product of his own stupidity. Climate Change is not a “new” phenomena, the basic observations were first reported in the 70s and the climate data itself has been rolling in since the early 90s. The president of the United States should know that long before he makes a decision to pull out of a climate change agreement.

              As for civil discussions, if anyone wants to understand the science behind the scientific consensus that the climate is changing because of human activity, that conversation can be had and the information is readily available to anyone who wants it. But civility does not require that we pretend that climate change denial is a knowledgeable and informed “belief”. Science is about reliable observations, not “beliefs”.

              • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 06/02/2017 - 02:19 pm.

                Name calling

                I’m not sure where I asked you to pretend that climate change science deniers have a foothold in facts.

                I am saying, that, once again, you have lead your argument with statements of Trump’s ignorance and stupidity. Pretty tough to continue a civil conversation after that.

                • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/03/2017 - 09:34 am.

                  Actually Ray…

                  I think you and I ARE having a civil discussion. Unless your simply unwilling to tolerate criticisms of Trump?

                  I haven’t actually called Trump any names, when I claim he’s being stupid and ignorant, I’m just making an observation. It’s a harsh criticism to be sure, but people in power earn harsh criticism when they make bad decisions that harm hundreds of millions of people. Likewise when ordinary people make stupid decisions that harm their fellow citizens, communities, nations, and planets, they earn the criticism they receive. We’re all about personal responsibility right?

                  So when you complain about civility in this case; yes, I think you are asking us to pretend that Donald Trump and his supporters have a foothold on facts rather than simply observing that they clearly do not. If this were the first day of the first discussion about climate change, you might have a point. But after 40 years of mounting evidence there’s simply no excuse for ignorance other than poor intellect. OK, so science isn’t everyone’s thing, but then leave it to those who understand it. I don’t try to tell a brain surgeon how to remove a tumor, that’s not something a photographer does. If you think verifiable evidence is something you can choose not to “believe” in, then go mow your lawn or trade some stock or do whatever it is you do, but don’t try to decide whether or not climate change is real or what causes it. And don’t expect the rest of us to pretend you have a point and make policy based on your “opinion”, that’s a sense of entitlement demanding un-earned respect.

                  Civility isn’t pretending that the unreasonable, might be reasonable. We don’t attack people at the first sign of disagreement. We can offer information and discussion, but at some point the only way you can be considered “smart” in this world… is to be smart, not stupid.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/02/2017 - 10:11 am.

          Okay

          Global warming is real, and it is dramatically exacerbated by human action. That’s one side.

          The other side puts its collective hands over its ears, and says “La-la-la, can’t hear you!”

          The science is there, and denying it is just foolish. Perhaps you meant there are multiple sides as to the policies that should be taken to mitigate it?

          • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 06/04/2017 - 05:34 pm.

            Thanks, RB

            Thank you for understanding, RB. I was at a conference a few years ago, with Democrats and Republicans alike. The focus was on the ‘fact’ that renewables would become more and more a part of the landscape, not whether we ‘believed’ that Global Warming/Climate Change is real.

            Discussion focused on trends, profiting from the changes in the industries, how to further innovation, and how to create or enlarge a market. Sides came together, and all conversation was forward moving and positive.

      • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 06/01/2017 - 11:32 pm.

        Sides

        Thank you for making my point. You believe global warming has one side, and I believe it has at least two sides. We have the makings of a discussion, that is, unless you presume you have the correct point of view, then you have quashed the argument, which is what I addressed in my above comment.

        (At the quantum level, there is no agreement among scientists on a theory for gravity, so, even gravity has multiple sides.)

    • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 06/01/2017 - 05:06 pm.

      Emmer

      Listen to Emmer at a town hall meeting about a year ago, when constituents – many his own backers – were expressing anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant attitudes. A model for other members of Congress.

      And, to Ray’s point, I generally don’t agree with his policies.

  6. Submitted by chuck holtman on 06/01/2017 - 04:06 pm.

    Of course they should have town halls

    If your boss calls you into her office to explain your odd approach to a project, do you just go into your office and lock the door?

    The reason why folks want town halls is simple. If they can’t see any possible way to reconcile the position of their putative representative with the public good, they want him to show up, face that question, and undertake to answer it. The only reason for a representative to refuse a town hall is if he can’t come up with any argument for the position he holds that he can offer with a straight face.

    Mr. Blaise, very funny last sentence.

  7. Submitted by Linda Feld on 06/01/2017 - 05:31 pm.

    Town Halls are Essential

    As a resident of CD3, I take exception to this contribution by Mark Harkins “… the vitriol of the 2017 round of town halls has more in common with 1994 than anything else. The Iraq War and Obamacare town halls centered around issues, he said. This climate, he says, is characterized by ‘true personal animus.’”

    This climate is characterized by truly concerned citizens worried about their health care, the environment, economic inequality, etc. I feel the anxiety of my fellow constituents. Rep. Paulsen ran for office in order to be our leader. Yet he now hides at closed events and then posts photo ops after they are over. I had a private meeting with Rep. Paulsen. He replied to my concerns about healthcare with the same tired platitudes that are in the form letter that he has sent me three separate times. And that he uses in the telephone town halls I’ve participated in. By “participate” I mean I listened with hundreds of others while he pontificated. We are all muted on the call unless one person is selected to ask a question. No followup questions allowed.

    These sessions left me craving true interaction with my congressman and my fellow citizens. In isolation, I am left wondering if I’m the only one that feels a certain way about an issue. How many others feel the same way? Maybe I’m the outlier? Maybe I missed some viewpoint that would help me understand?

    Paulsen should come out of hiding and lead. If he can’t face a tough crowd, he shouldn’t be our representative.

  8. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/01/2017 - 06:48 pm.

    They simply can’t defend their positions.

    When Congressmen search desperately for reasons not to meet publicly with a large group of their constituents, in town hall meetings, it’s a sign that they cannot rationally defend positions they have taken on major issues. Trump doesn’t actually have policies; he just tries to help Republicans pass whatever it is that the leadership puts in front of him. And he doesn’t understand the bills anyway.

    So, it’s not Trump solely who’s to blame for the cowardice we see from Lewis and Paulsen. It’s that they have voted for–a major example–the truly awful House version of the destruction of health insurance and health care for many tens of millions of Americans, and they don’t know how to explain and defend that vote in the face of knowledgeable voters in their home districts. They have voted the Party Line, for horrendous policy.

    Simple as that. Even the occasional casual voter can remember that for a year.

  9. Submitted by Jim Smola on 06/01/2017 - 06:58 pm.

    Absolutely

    Our elected representatives whether House members or Senators at the federal or state level should hold town hall meetings. They represent all the voters in their respective district or state. If they don’t meet with their constituents how will they have any idea where the public is in any issue. Failure to hold meetings for any reason is a unethical.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/02/2017 - 09:56 am.

    Yeah…

    I frequently point out the fact that on a basic level many Republicans, Libertarians, and Conservatives simply don’t believe in the concept of democracy. They don’t see the function of elections as a mechanism for self government by a majority of any kind, they see elections as a gateway to raw power to be exercised over the majority. You don’t win elections to serve constituents, you win elections to impose your will upon constituents. This toxic mentality explains the Republican paradox of animosity towards government, while seeking absolute control of government at the same time. No one in their right mind would trust the government Republicans seek to create, yet they nevertheless seek to create it because raw power doesn’t require trust, just obedience.

    So of course guys like Lewis and Paulsen see no reason to meet with their constituents, as long as they win elections constituents are irrelevant, why bother? They’re in power, that’s all that matters.

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