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

The demand for congressional town halls has ebbed and flowed over time.

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.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”