Voters raise their voices. Congressmen in shirtsleeves deliver bromides. Advocacy groups attempt to rally grassroots activists. It must be the August recess.
With Congress already into the second week of its five-week break, reports have begun to surface nationwide of clashes between lawmakers and activists of all ideologies. And while the action has perhaps been louder in years past, plenty of lawmakers are getting an earful.
One constituent told Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., that "we're dying out here" because congressional Republicans were being too "nice" to President Obama.
Freshman Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., landed in the middle of a GOP feud when asked during a town hall if he backed a plan by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to defund Obamacare. Videos of the at-times heated exchange got picked up in the media—and that is often the point.
Many advocacy groups agitate at town-hall meetings and other gatherings, hoping that a well-placed question can generate a firestorm online. For the groups, the tactic is about sharpening their attacks and being aggressive, said Americans United for Change spokeswoman Lauren Weiner.
The group already scored once this summer, when Leslie Boyd of Ashville, N.C., whose son had trouble getting insurance because of a preexisting condition and who later died of cancer, confronted Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., about his opposition to certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The questioning was caught on video and was promoted online.
"It's not necessarily about embarrassing them but asking them very pointed questions, [telling them,] 'You have to answer for these positions,' " Weiner said.
Weiner's group has transformed an internal database of information on Republican town-hall meetings into a tool that the public can access. Accountablecongress.com lets users search for events being held by Republican lawmakers. The thinking is that opening up the database will encourage Democrats in Republican districts to make an appearance at a town-hall meeting, ask a question, and record the lawmaker's response.
"What we're seeing is that members in very safe, very red districts are holding more events, so we're trying to get folks out to events to ask one or two questions," Weiner said.
Conservative groups are wading into the same waters as well. Freedom Works, for example, is using its site to encourage users to share information about lawmakers' town halls and posting the results.
Some conservative groups are focused on influencing Republican lawmakers to adopt Lee's approach to Obamacare. Lee wants Republicans to agree not to fund the government, and to blocking a continuing resolution to do so, unless the Affordable Care Act is entirely defunded.
Heritage Action is leading what it's billing as a "Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour," led by Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, the former tea-party senator. The nine-stop tour begins next Monday in Fayetteville, Ark., and tea-party Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of Lee's leading allies in the Senate, is expected to join the tour at its stop in Dallas.
Even before that tour began, Pittenger was asked at a town hall whether he would vote to defund Obamacare and flatly answered no when pressed to give a simple answer. Later, he suggested such a proposal would not make it through the Democratic Senate, an argument Republicans like Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Bob Corker of Tennessee have likewise made about Lee's proposal.
The battle to dominate the message wars in August—and the liability that comes with an open microphone—may have some lawmakers backing away from town-hall-style events. While figures were not available indicating how many lawmakers held events this year, a No Labels survey from 2011 showed that only 44 percent planned to schedule meetings that year.
The survey followed a particularly heated summer in 2009, when meetings in some cases turned violent, and the tea party began to gain a political foothold. In the town-hall vacuum that followed, some lawmakers moved instead to so-called tele-town halls, which gave them the ability to screen questions more effectively than they can at live events.
That dynamic, in turn, explains why some commentators have begun to call for the end of town halls as we knew them.
"The Internet, 24/7 cable news, and relentless operatives in these polarized, high-volume times have turned meeting rooms into stages," wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn. "And congressional representatives who want to get a handle on what their constituents really think instead of simply getting an earful need to get off their—how to put it nicely?—chairs, walk around and ask."
This article appears in the August 14, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.
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