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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Battle-weary lawmakers avoid town hall meetings

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., right, talks with an attendee during a town hall meeting in Goodyear, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

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 Cravaack to complain that his only two free town halls were in remote, rural areas. Cravaack, 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, 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, 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. Tom 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.


Folllow Jeri Clausing on Twitter at

5 thoughts on “Battle-weary lawmakers avoid town hall meetings”

  1. If grass-roots groups are “commandeering the town halls” then Congress really should be listening. People willing to give up their time and make the trip to a town hall meeting aren’t placated by sound bites. Listen and act on their behalf. That is your job!

    If I got a review of 13% positives and 87% negatives I would be fired!

    That’s total failure no matter how you try to spin it!

  2. The first line tells it all…too much yelling, not enough listening.

    Hey Hill People – we have been listening. We’ve been listening all these years to your bullshit, selling us one bad policy after another.

    We’ve been listening to your campaign promises and your endless rhetoric. We’ve listened to your speeches and your commercials.

    We’re tired of listening, it’s time you did some yourself.

    You are not doing what’s in the best interest of this country or its people. You’re corrupt and rotten to the core.

    You consider yourselves above the laws that you pass, and above the lowly masses that you’re elected to represent.

    You play politics and power games when the fate of the country is at stake. You’re beholden to monied interests and not the People.

    You lie and distort. You play lip service to the Constitution and Bill of Rights that you’re sworn to uphold and protect.

    You’re an enemy of all that is right and just. You’re a parody of yourselves and a disgrace to those that sacrificed every thing to birth this nation, and to all those that came after to protect it.

    And now you’re afraid to face that which you’ve created. You’ve lost all respect and confidence, and you’re running scared now.

  3. The campaigns themselves are responsible for the voters getting verbally and physically threatening. The base of the GOP has destroyed any possible debate as they have shown a total lack of respect for the current White House. The townhall meetings have turned into a 10th grade schoolyard fight; right down to the dialog.

    During the Clinton Administration the GOP took out their wrath on the internet but nothing as threatening as this new breed of Republicans.

    Obviously the only way to unseat President Obama is through lining up lies about this personal character.

    I believe that the GOP is now inspired by their faith in Jesus Christ and they extrapolate their hatred for Obama as coming from God. They turned the GOP into an power of inquisition when the churches took over the government in Europe.

    The smartest move for many Republicans running for office in 2012 would be to make an apology to their voters for degrading the position of President. If there is a leader in the Republican Party he/she should stand up and demand an end to the personal attacks. I’ve been called a RINO so many times, I would not vote for any Republican and I haven’t since 1988. I would also tell Fox News and Rush to shut the hell up and work on agenda, not personal attacks.

    There are many smart people who could bring up a winning agenda for either side but they are carried away with a sense of violence in their words. It would not help to restrain the words as few posing on line could accept a more refined debate.

    We are fortunate here at CHB that we have monitors who do control our anger. Hell, I’ve been thrown out a record number of times.

    President Bush 43 opened up the elections to a level of uneducated groups of voters who had never bothered to vote before. They felt their religions took them over and above the masses who had voted all their lives. Many had never debated anything before and without the proper dialog, they blew apart many discussion forums. Many forums closed up due to the threats of violence.

    I have a source for these threats of violence on the internet that I can soon expose. We are fortunate to have our monitors here at CHB who keep us aware of what could come of the out-of-control ranters.

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