Over 200 Republican lawmakers have skipped their traditional town hall meetings this year. By mid-February, Republicans in Congress had scheduled about 90 in-person town hall events in 2017. More than a third of those events were scheduled by a single member of Congress, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. During that same period in 2015, Republicans held 222 in-person town hall events.
For most Republican legislators, the decision to limit in-person town hall meetings began after a number of embarrassing confrontations with concerned constituents. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah.) was criticized at a town hall early in the year for refusing to investigate President Trump’s business conflicts, ties to Russia, and unreleased tax returns. Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) pledged to repeal and replace Obamacare at a town hall in February and met with equally vocal condemnation. Republican Reps. Dave Reichert (Wash.), Leonard Lance (N.J.), Louie Gohmert (Texas), and many of their counterparts across the country had similar experiences.
For Rep. Erik Paulsen, though, the decision to forgo town hall events has a longer history. In March, Minnesota’s Star Tribune reported that “Paulsen’s critics insist the congressman has not held a formal town hall in several years. His office did not respond to repeated requests for clarification about when the last such event was held.” According to one group critical of Paulsen, “Rep. Paulsen hasn’t held a true town hall meeting in seven years.”
But Paulsen’s refusal to hold town halls hasn’t prevented activists from airing grievances. At a February meeting, an estimated 400 people gathered to discuss their concerns about Rep. Paulsen, President Donald Trump, and the Republican agenda. Last month, Dean Phillips – the Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate for Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District – held a town hall event of his own. “Representation first and foremost starts with listening,” Phillips said in an interview prior to the event. “Rep. Paulsen refuses to host town hall meetings and it’s one of the reasons I’m running.”
Instead of holding town halls or ducking their obligations completely, some Congressional Republicans are scheduling Facebook Live events or “tele-town halls” as a kind of compromise. In digital town halls, elected officials have more control over the proceedings. This helps them avoid the embarrassment and inevitable viral videos that follow after they’re booed by a room full of people.
Some Republicans have criticized their colleagues’ cowardice. Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, for instance, said, “What happens in politics is that over time, you can get increasingly insulated from people that have a strongly held point of view that’s different [from yours].” In tele-town halls, he explained, Representatives can screen the calls and questions, which makes the entire enterprise open to manipulation.
This is exactly what happens during Rep. Paulsen’s Correspondence Corner, the semi-weekly video series he produces. During the videos, Paulsen takes softball questions from supposedly concerned citizens. This approach eliminates the spontaneity and unpredictability of town halls, and allows Paulsen to script his answers well in advance of reading the questions.
At the height of Tea Party activism, Congressional Democrats demonstrated a similar reluctance for town halls. Instead, they limited outreach activities to touring local businesses, participating in community service projects, or holding events in controlled settings.
Today, the situation is flipped, with Republicans operating all levers of government but facing a broad-based grassroots opposition.
Some on the Right have been dismissive of the town hall activists, calling them paid protesters – an ironic accusation considering that the Tea Party movement that swept many Republicans into office was one of the most successful Astroturfing campaigns in history.
Others have been more conciliatory. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) – who was recently blasted by angry constituents at his own town hall event – said: “I’m not afraid of protesters. This is an open country; people have an opportunity to come express themselves. As long as they do it peacefully I’ve got no problem with it.”
It’s unfortunate that Rep. Paulsen doesn’t feel the same.
Featured image via New York Times video.