Facing voter discontent, lawmakers skip town halls
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Too much yelling, not enough listening.
Facing organized, often raucous confrontations at political events, some members of Congress this summer abandoned the long-time tradition of open meetings with the folks back home.
It was goodbye to one of the few remaining opportunities for voters and lawmakers to talk face to face.
Some cited security in the aftermath of the shooting that severely wounded Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a meet-and-greet event in January. Others blamed grass-roots groups for commandeering the town halls. Still others opted for smaller, sometimes private or paid events.
Whatever the explanation, the dearth of meetings sparked criticism that lawmakers were dodging their constituents when Congress is held in such low regard. A recent Associated Press-GFK poll showed 87 percent of Americans disapprove of lawmakers' job performance.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., described the trend as disappointing.
"I think (the town hall meeting) is one of the fundamentals of our government process, our democratic process — meeting with people and responding to them," said McCain, who held six town hall meetings this summer, including one in Tucson, where the Giffords shooting occurred.
While McCain said he understood the desire to avoid the "despicable" people who disrupt town halls, he said the decision to avoid them lets "those bad people win."
According to CQ-Roll Call, which kept a count, lawmakers held just over 500 town halls this summer compared to more than 650 in 2009 when the rancor over President Barack Obama's health care overhaul turned some events into shouting matches. This summer's recess began immediately after a down-to-the-wire, fiercely partisan debate on raising the debt limit and cutting spending.
The actual number of members holding the meetings dropped just slightly, from 164 to 154. It was not clear, however, if those numbers included pay-to-attend meetings that drew constituent ire in some states.
Protesters swarmed a $10-a-plate luncheon in Duluth, Minn., for freshman Republican Rep. Chip Cravaak to complain that his only two free town halls were in remote, rural areas. Cravaak, who has said he got into politics because his predecessor, Rep. Jim Oberstar, refused to meet with him about the health care law, then held a town hall in Duluth.
More than 200 people showed up for what ended up being a sometimes contentious hour-long discussion with the lawmaker.
"If nothing else, we gave them a voice and I heard them and I listened to them," Cravaack said.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi held some town halls in California, but was heckled by those upset about the debt-ceiling deal. When she argued that Democrats fended off cuts to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, she was loudly chided for voting for "that Satan sandwich" and called a "sell-out."
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan held standing-room-only town halls in the spring while the federal budget debate raged, and faced occasional heckling. This summer, while supporters urged the Wisconsin Republican to run for president, he held only one town hall — by telephone, with only a few hours' advance notice to constituents.
Pressed on whether this made it harder for people to discuss issues with their congressman, spokesman Kevin Seifert said no. Ryan is scheduled to headline a $15-a-head event next week at a Rotary Club in Greenfield, Wis., at the Rotary's invitation.
In Pennsylvania, freshman Republican Lou Barletta, who last year chided his Democratic predecessor Paul Kanjorski for failing to hold town halls, cited the Giffords shooting and what he said was organized harassment by the liberal group MoveOn.org, for not holding any town halls this summer, according to local media reports.
"The behavior of these protesters has put myself, my staff and innocent people in attendance at risk," he said.
Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, said they simply let people know about opportunities for voters to address their elected officials.
"People won't go unless they are passionate," he said. "In 2009, there were large groups of people who were really concerned about health care. You can't manufacture that. You can tell a lot of lies if you want ... but the concern is real. People have really busy lives. And we can't get them to turn out to a town hall meeting and ask about jobs if they are not so frustrated that no one in Washington seems to be doing the right thing."
Tea Party activists have also been blamed for disrupting the public forums. But Tea Party Express spokesman Levi Russell said his group has not been coordinating any protests at town halls this summer. Still, he agreed with Ruben that members need to make themselves available to the public — even when voter anger is high.
"These people are not kings. They are put here for a short, determined amount of time to vote for the people in their district — not to go to Washington and do whatever the hell they want," Russell said.
In New Mexico, only two of the state's five-member congressional delegation held town halls. Those skipping such events were Rep. Martin Heinrich, who is running for Senate. Heinrich and Democratic Sen. Tim Udall said they were focused on attending community events and visiting local businesses during the August break.
Ruben, however, called such events a "really poor substitute."
"Imagine you're a worker at one of these companies," he said. "Your member of Congress gets invited by your bosses, so your CEO is standing there next to your congressman. Are you going to stand up and say, 'How come you're not taxing the rich?'"
Those events are also generally closed to the public. Food giant General Mills, Inc., refused to let a reporter cover a meeting Heinrich held at its Albuquerque cereal plant with employees there on Wednesday.
McCain said he has been holding town halls for 30 years, and to "stop now would be ridiculous."
Associated Press writers Martiga Lohn in St. Paul, Minn., and Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
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