Lawmakers. Town Halls. Advocacy-Group Rhetoric. It Must Be August.

Rep. Andy Harris, M.D., holds up a miniature copy of the Constitution during a rally against the Obama administration's health care law. 
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Aug. 13, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

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.”

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