Lawmakers' priority during recess: avoid town halls

Virulent meetings over healthcare reform lead some in Congress – especially Democrats – to seek less public ways to engage voters.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama arrives at a town hall meeting on health insurance reform at Portsmouth High School in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Tuesday.
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For a member of Congress, the only thing worse than a perp walk is a deer-in-the-headlights moment, as when attacked at a public meeting.

Given the virulence lawmakers have encountered lately at some town-hall-style meetings about health reform legislation, those on both sides of the aisle – Democrats especially – are devising new strategies for engaging voters. Even members who have yet to face confrontational protesters have seen video clips of colleagues who have, and they are adapting.

As a result, the face-to-face town meeting, once a staple of the August congressional recess, is on the outs. In its place is a new array of “virtual” meetings – free of protest signs, shouting, bad media moments, and (real or suspected) “outside agitators."

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These new platforms range from mass conference calls, or I-town hall meetings, to interactive Internet sites where voters register concerns and members, in their own time, respond.

A shift to 'virtual' meetings

Sen. Herb Kohl (D) of Wisconsin, who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging, set up a webcast on YouTube Thursday to explain to voters – no questions asked – the state of play on healthcare, especially the facts that there is yet no healthcare bill and that “no decisions have been made.”

Senator Kohl has scheduled healthcare-related events throughout the recess, but no rallies or town halls.

“People are calling by the hundreds every day. He knows how they are feeling on healthcare,” says Ashley Glacel, a spokeswoman for the Committee on Aging.

“But you can see from the other town halls," she added, "that a lot of them don’t allow for constructive conversation. So, we’re trying to see how that flow of information and opinions can take place without all the chaos.”

Likewise for Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan. He "is holding a series of intense policy discussions over the August break with policy experts, healthcare providers, business leaders, benefits administrators and others," says spokeswoman Tara Andringa. "He always welcomes input from Michiganders by e-mail or phone on any topic."

A GOP tactic, too

Freshman Sen. Jim Risch (R) of Idaho is also punting on big public town hall meetings this August. Instead, he plans a series of I-town hall meetings, along the lines pioneered by Idaho’s senior Sen. Mike Crapo (R) in 2007. It’s a statewide conference call that contacts voters first with an invitation to join the call, and again when the call begins. He is also planning to put up a poll on his Senate website to solicit voter opinion once a Senate bill takes shape.

He's not worried about confrontational protesters though.

“The vast majority of Idahoans are opposed to a government-sponsored healthcare plan, and they have been calling, writing and e-mailing their opposition,” especially to the idea of a government-run insurance option, says Brad Hoaglun, senior policy advisor for Senator Risch. “So, holding a town hall where a large majority of people agree on the major issue isn't needed.”

For now, Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia is postponing an in-the-flesh town hall on healthcare in favor of answering questions on multiple platforms – telephone town halls, a rolling poll, and video responses on his Senate website and through Twitter. On July 14, he held a telephone town hall with some 1,600 Virginians.

“We will do traditional town hall meetings, but hopefully the burner will be turned down,” says spokesman Kevin Hall, referring to disruptions in public meetings of other members of Congress. “In the meanwhile, we will use all the options we have.”

Senator Warner is also using his website and Google’s Moderator to allow people to submit questions that he will begin answering in video format as early as this week. In the past 60 days, Warner’s office reports some 60,000 contacts on healthcare. Nearly 500 questions on healthcare have been submitted.

Bawk, bawk, bawk?

Some critics say lawmakers who don’t meet voters in town hall-style settings are avoiding accountability. In a slam pegged to President Obama’s town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., Tuesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) criticized Granite State Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) for avoiding similar venues.

“As the president touts his flawed healthcare agenda today, constituents should be wondering why their representative has yet to hold a town hall for them,” said Ken Spain, communications director for the NRCC, the House GOP campaign arm.

“Carol Shea-Porter had no problem with town halls when she was crashing them during her first campaign for Congress, but her noticeable lack of recent public appearances speaks volumes about the plummeting approval of her party’s government takeover of healthcare,” he added in a statement.

A spokesman for the freshman lawmaker says she held a town meeting most recently in March and is scheduling a “tele-town hall” this month. [Editor's note: Shea-Porter's staff amended the date of her most recent town hall after this story was published.]

“We’ll call about 90,000 constituents and they can decide to opt it,” says Jamike Radice. “She has done it before, because it reaches such a big audience, including seniors and parents with small children.”

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