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Town Hall Meetings Vital for Congress, Constituents

Wednesday, 05 Aug 2009 05:09 PM

By Ernest Istook

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Phone-y town halls are on the rise.

Skittish about facing vocal and often-angry constituents, some members of Congress choose to forego their traditional August town hall meetings. Sometimes a “tele-townhall” is offered as a substitute. In that system, constituents are given a chance to listen over the phone to comments by their elected official. Some of the public are permitted to speak up when an operator activates their line from listen-only mode to interactive.

The system enables large numbers to listen — sometimes in the thousands — but limits the ability for anyone to speak except the politician. There is no group dynamic, no chance to interject (whether politely or rudely), and no embarrassing YouTube video for the politician.

It’s a tightly-controlled and sedate way to have a meeting, dominated by the elected official.

The system is well-described at http://www.teletownhall.com/, the Web site of a leading vendor that sells the service. Members of Congress are generally permitted to use official office funds to pay for the costs.

The system is popular with Congress, and serves many legitimate purposes. When Congress is in session and members are stuck in Washington, it enables valuable contact with the folks back home. However, during the current five-week recess, congressmen have time and opportunity to see constituents face-to-face, and it’s traditional to do so. But in today’s red-hot political environment, the phone option opens a way for officials to dodge face-to-face confrontations with the public while claiming to be accessible.

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., reportedly will hold only a telephone town hall. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., has one scheduled for Aug. 5, and says his last phone meeting attracted over 10,000 listeners. “Listeners” is the key word. Said Thompson, “I didn’t have a chance to get to everyone’s question.”

As reported by facethestate.com in Colorado, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., will conduct only a single meeting — but it’s purely by telephone. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., will hold a meeting — but only one.

The Colorado article adds, “U.S. Reps. John Salazar and Betsy Markey, both Democrats, and Mike Coffman, a Republican, have not yet scheduled any town hall meetings for the August break, which runs Aug. 3 to Sept. 4. Staff for all three say dates and times will be announced shortly. A representative from Salazar’s Grand Junction office said they are ‘currently gauging interest before deciding where to hold the meetings.’ ”

“Gauging interest?” The whole country is experiencing record turnouts; huge issues are at stake on healthcare, energy, taxes, and spending. We’re in a recession. And Salazar isn’t sure there’s enough to talk about?

A new CNN poll says 71 percent of the public wants a town hall where voters can speak and tell their Congressmen what they think.

The phone-in “Tele-townhalls” serve a useful purpose and can reach large numbers, but the system also enables politicians to dodge face-to-face meetings. This method lets the official hog the time and choose which caller — one at a time — gets to speak. There is no group interaction and no feedback from constituents’ reactions. If you don’t care whether the audience is cheering you or booing you, then you’ve already got your mind made up how to vote. You’re going through the motions, not truly listening to the public. The phone system also keeps citizens from meeting and following up with others who share their viewpoints.

Having conducted hundreds of town halls during my 14 years in Congress, I know how important they are. No matter how tough the crowd may be, Members of Congress owe it to the citizens to show up and speak with them face-to-face.

Back to Colorado. At least two of its representatives are willing to face the public multiple times. Good for them. As the article notes, “Leading the pack with the most scheduled constituent meetings is Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat representing the 2nd congressional district. He will host gatherings around his district August 7, 17, 19, 22 and Sept. 2 and 3. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican, has announced two meetings in Woodland Park and Chaffee County, August 18 and 25.”

Today’s technology provides ample ways to communicate: telephone, e-mail, Web sites, Twitter, Facebook, etc. But there’s nothing like the old-fashioned person-to-person way to meet and greet. It would be a tragedy to lose that, and the public should insist that we never do.

To see other columns by Ernest Istook at The Foundry go here now

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