Opinion

Town Hall Winners and Losers So Far

If lawmakers can’t meet with constituents, why do they have a job?

Voters don’t always need to be agreed with, but they always want to be heard — and Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., delivered on that, Patricia Murphy writes. (Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

We’re halfway through the Presidents Day recess, the first during President Donald Trump’s first term in office. Coming after early stumbles from Trump, and with major legislative changes looming for health care and immigration, and the ascendance of a national effort to protest the president’s agenda, it’s no surprise that town halls would become a focal point for the anger swirling on the left. 

[It’s Not “AstroTurf” if the anger is real]

Some members have plainly refused to meet with groups they think will be hostile to them. Others have flung open the sashes and let the emotions fly. Others have worked assiduously to restrain something that is inherently not theirs to control — the reaction of voters to their government’s actions in Washington. With half of the recess still left to play out, here are the winners and losers so far:

Winners

• Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. — Maybe it’s his time governing an entire state, or the perspective that comes from a political near-death experience, but Sanford has been among the most willing Republicans in the caucus to face voter criticism and forge ahead anyway. That skill came in handy last weekend, when Sanford took a veritable beating from constituents in Mt. Pleasant for more than three hours, meeting first in front of an over-capacity crowd with Sen. Tim Scott, and alone with an overflow group outside. Regardless of the rounds of tough questions on Trump and Obamacare, Sanford walked away with a smile and probably a few extra votes in hand. Voters don’t always need to be agreed with, but they do always want to be heard, and Sanford delivered on that.

• Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc. — Speaking of taking a beating, Sensenbrenner got an earful at his most recent town hall meetings in Wisconsin. The headlines out of one event were about the congressman’s gavel pounding and warnings to the crowd to “be respectful!” But more important was a commitment he made after hearing from multiple constituents worried about changes to the Affordable Care Act. “I can say, we’ve heard you,” the congressman told an attendee. “We’re going to put together something that does have a ban on pre-existing condition exclusions.” Not only has the congressman been willing to hear out frustrated voters, repeatedly, he let them know he is responding to what they’ve told him. A voter can’t ask for much more than that, except maybe a quieter gavel?

[Town Hall Voter Anger May Force GOP to Stall Obamacare Repeal]

Sen. Charles Grassely, R-Iowa — When someone at a town hall meeting in Iowa says, “Shut your hole,” it would be tempting for a veteran senator like Grassley to pack up his notepad and go home. But he stuck it out at that town hall and at several more later in the week across Iowa. If there’s one thing we know about the senator, he’ll continue to show up at Iowa town halls whether cameras are on hand or not.

Former Capitol Hill staffers  If a current staffer ever needed something to get through a long day of constituent services, it might be the idea of using what they’ve learned in the trenches to start a national movement someday. Dare to dream staffers — that is just what the quartet of former Hill staffers behind the Indivisible movement has done.

Losers

The No-Shows — In New York, GOP Rep. Chris Collins said he won’t hold town halls because “what you get are demonstrators who come and shout you down and heckle you.” Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said he wouldn’t do in-person town halls because he’s worried about other people’s safety. “But I’m not going to put East Texans at risk,” Gohmert explained, without giving any details of a threat. “I don’t want to get anybody hurt.” Many others went to great lengths to describe their plans to hold town hall meetings in their districts in the future, but just not right now.

[For the GOP, a Dangerous Gamble on the All-Important Town Hall]

The Yes, Buts — Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, reportedly told constituents that she would meet with no more than five people at a time, and stipulated that it be without press, cameras or recording devices. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, went to a members-only Republican town hall meeting, but did not did not respond to constituents’ calls to hold an open public forum. That didn’t stop nearly 250 people from showing up in his Texas district for a mock town hall event to ask questions of a cardboard cutout of the congressman named “Roger Roger Town Hall Dodger.”

The State of Texas — Speaking of Texas, just one member in the entire Texas delegation planned to hold an in-person town hall meeting this recess, according to a tally by The Texas Tribune. It’s hard to think of a state more affected by President Trump’s plans for immigration, health care, and a border wall, but town hall meetings won’t be a part of the process for the Texas delegation right now.

Town hall meetings are the most basic expression of our representative democracy. Will people speak out? Of course. Congress’ job approval is 28 percent, so it’s a good bet that someone from the other 72 percent is going to show up and say something.

But listening to voters’ concerns and representing those concerns in Washington isn’t just a part of the job for members of Congress, it is the job. The whole job. If members of Congress or senators can’t find the time or reason to meet with their constituents, it’s hard to see why they should have the job at all.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.