At Town Halls, Congress Now Steers Clear of Voters

When members of Congress go home for the summer, they take Washington with them

Illustration by Dorothy Gambrell

Representative Scott Rigell admits he’s a talker. He owns auto dealerships, where a knack for storytelling comes in handy. So when the Virginia Republican takes the floor at an Aug. 22 breakfast with constituents in Norfolk, he sets a timer to keep his inner salesman from carrying on too long.

The event is billed as a chance to “talk town hall style” with the congressman. But the venue is more classroom than auditorium, and it’s far from a come-one-come-all crowd. Instead, it’s a friendly audience, about 40 members of the local American Institute of Architects chapter that asked for the meeting.

Rigell speechifies for a good 15 minutes about how Congress is broken, a noncontroversial topic that plays well in his district, which voted him into a second term last year and also reelected President Obama. He takes just four questions—about the federal budget, the cost of education, energy policy, and civic duty. His answers are light on specifics and steer back to his theme of fixing Washington. “We’re better than this as Americans,” he says.

Scenes like this played out across the country in August, as members of Congress, home until Sept. 9 for a five-week recess they’ve rebranded as a “district work period,” travel around hearing the concerns of ordinary voters. That’s the way it used to be, anyway. Gone are the packed, freewheeling town halls of the past, where voters stood up at microphones and pelted elected officials with questions on just about anything. Members of Congress largely put an end to unscripted, up-close-and-personal events after the traumatic summer of 2009, when dozens of lawmakers were shouted down by mad-as-hell Tea Partiers and citizens angry that the proposed Affordable Care Act was going too far or not far enough. It was a “toxic mess,” says Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Former Representative Mike Castle, a moderate Delaware Republican who’d held hundreds of town halls during his 20 years in Congress, recalls that at one event, captured on YouTube, people started yelling at him about Obamacare “death panels” and the president’s “fake” birth certificate. Castle, who lost his primary that year, says a dozen colleagues who saw the video told him afterward, “No more live town halls. I’m done with that.”

Illustration by Dorothy Gambrell

This summer is all about keeping a safe distance from voters and sticking to the party script. Before Congress left town, House Democratic and Republican leaders handed out “tool kits” full of talking points and specific event ideas, along with sample editorials written and ready to be planted in hometown newspapers. This enables them to stay within the preprogrammed Washington bubble even when they’re outside the safety of the Beltway.

Both parties’ tool kits urge members to focus on small gatherings with friendly audiences, keeping in touch with the public on Facebook and Twitter. Democrats were told to play up Obamacare benefits. “Find a woman in your district who has a ‘pre-existing condition,’ such as being a breast cancer survivor, and who has had a hard time finding insurance, and hold a press conference,” party leaders suggest. Talk about immigration reform in “meet-and-greets with successful immigrant entrepreneurs from the district or from the state. Have them tell their inspirational story.”

Republicans advise members to seed events with business owners suffering under “excessive Washington-imposed regulations” that are “hindering their ability to expand.” For a suggested “ObamaCare Media Tour,” in which preselected companies are tapped to talk about how the law is hurting business, the kit stresses: “Confirm the theme(s) prior to the event and make sure the participants will be 100% on message.” And for a “gas and groceries tour” about rising prices, members’ staffs are told to be sure the business owners “are comfortable with the Member visiting their location, and confirm they are comfortable with the overall messaging theme.”

Heeding the Democratic handbook, Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia has been posting online videos promoting Obamacare (the most recent has racked up 34 views) and holding “info sessions” about the law’s benefits.

In Florida, Republican Marco Rubio, who put his conservative credentials on the line by leading the Senate’s immigration reform bill, has downplayed the topic during a 330-mile trek through the state. (Immigration is pointedly missing from the GOP’s list of recommended topics.) In a 35-minute speech to the Rotary Club of Jacksonville, he spent less than 90 seconds on the issue.

Illustration by Dorothy Gambrell

Representative Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat, held a town hall meeting by telephone on July 23—“a convenient and efficient alternative to a traditional town hall,” the party tool kit says. Callers first screened by an aide were allowed to ask Becerra a question. A woman who asked about Obamacare “putting a chip under your skin and linking it to anything you own” was quickly cut off. Becerra politely replied that as far as he knows, chip implantation wasn’t a feature of the law. Next question, please.

Markwayne Mullin is one member of Congress who isn’t shying away from voters. The Oklahoma Republican was first elected to the House in 2012. He’s hosted 26 town halls across his district this summer, often doing more than one a day. All are invited, and anyone can grab the mic. Hundreds have showed up. Mullin has received some uncomfortable questions—a birther tried to corner him about the president’s citizenship—but overall it’s been remarkably civil. “People during my campaign were telling me, ‘The only time I see my congressman is during the election,’ ” Mullin says. “I didn’t want to be like that, to be so fake and have people think I just want to be around them when I’m trying to get reelected.”

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