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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Town Hall Dearth

No Labels reports:

Is your representative holding a public town hall meeting this August recess? No Labels called every office, and only 40% are scheduling open town hall meetings. It’s a sad sign of the state of affairs when our elected officials don’t have time to meet with their constituents.

No Labels activists spoke to all 430 current members of the House of Representatives to find that only 175* of them scheduled meetings. The results of the phone survey also reveal that members of both parties share the blame, with 67% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans stating they had no town hall meetings scheduled for the recess period.

*UPDATE: Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) is holding town hall meetings this month, as is Rep. Steve King (R-IA).

Last week, USA Today provided some background:

The 2009 protests over health care not only pushed the Tea Party activism to the front lines of American politics, it also changed how members of Congress interact with their constituents. And it put the sleepy August recess on the political calendar, transforming town hall meetings into made-for-YouTube events.

Matt Kibbe, the director of the Tea Party umbrella group FreedomWorks, had been organizing protests at town hall-style meetings since the mid-1990s. What made the 2009 protests possible, he said, was the ease of alerting volunteers by e-mail.

This year, a website promoted by conservative talk show host Glenn Beck gives location information, talking points and advice: "Make sure that a Tea Partier is the first person to the microphone ," the "August Action" kit says.

Even liberal groups begrudgingly admire the Tea Party tactic, and are replicating it.

"The Tea Party managed to really spook Congress with a really smart, organized effort. After a week of aggressive town-hall disruptions, they managed to create a narrative about the health care law that stuck," said Justin Ruben, executive director of, a liberal advocacy group launched in 1998.

The forums have the ability to show a depth of passion on an issue that e-mail petitions — once the staple of MoveOn's organizing — can't convey, he said.


Now, town-hall-style meetings are less publicized, Kibbe said. He worries his town-hall strategy may become a victim of its own success. It awakened opponents to the power of the strategy, and may discourage some members from holding open meetings. Telephone town halls, webcasts and business luncheons allow members of Congress to control the audience and the questions.

"If that's a fact, it's too bad, because it's one of the few ways I could use to know what ordinary people in my district thought," said former representative Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who heads the Center on Congress at Indiana University. "So much of the problem with our politics today is that politicians tend to interact with homogenous groups, and they therefore misinterpret a mandate."

Protesters on the left and right have drawn inspiration from Saul Alinsky. But so have their targets. Alinsky wrote:

Once a specific tactic is used, it ceases to be outside the experience of the enemy. Before long he devises countermeasures that void the previous effective tactic. Recently the head of a corporation showed me the blueprint of a new plant and pointed to a large ground-floor area: “Boy, have we got an architect who is with it!” he chuckled. “See that big hall? That’s our sit-in room! When the sit-inners come they’ll be shown in and there will be coffee, T.V., and good toilet facilities — they can sit here until hell freezes over.