‘Tele-Town Halls’ Become More Popular on Hill

Posted August 1, 2008 at 5:20pm

Franking rules seem to cover it all, from the acceptable size of a Member’s picture on an official newsletter to how many times a mass-mailed letter can include the words “I” and “me.”

But both the House’s 72-page “Red Book” and the Senate’s rules are mostly silent on communication developments in the electronic age.

With technology rapidly evolving, Members are constantly adopting new methods of communicating with their constituents. While once it was a mass-produced pamphlet in the mail, it’s now a phone message, an e-mail or an online video.

“Telephone town halls” are one of the newest trends. Available since 2005, Members are increasingly using them to give constituents the same information normally found in franked mail — for less money, with less oversight and with more interaction.

In the past year, the use of “tele-town halls” has “significantly increased,” said Howard Gantman, spokesman for Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Several House aides also said use is increasing in their chamber, both through word of mouth and because of the approaching elections.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) recently began to use them after hearing of them from other Members, said spokesman Jose Parra. After holding one and getting positive feedback from constituents, Honda held a second one a week later.

“This is something that has been the buzz for the last few months,” Parra said.

That growing popularity has recently motivated both House and Senate officials to look more closely at how franking rules should apply to tele-town halls.

For the first time, Senators will not be allowed to use official funds for the calls during the 60-day franking blackout period before the elections. Feinstein and Rules and Administration ranking member Bob Bennett (R-Utah) sent out a notice of the change Thursday.

In the House, telephone town halls are already prohibited during the chamber’s 90-day election black-out period. But officials are looking at changing how they move through the franking process.

Already, most of the content is not required to go through the franking commission, since it’s live and akin to going to a physical town hall meeting, House Administration Committee spokesman Kyle Anderson said. Franking officials only approve the recorded introduction, and Members can ad-lib from there.

Soon, House Members will need even less approval for their calls. Under new regulations being considered by the House Administration Committee, a Member would only have to submit a script once if it doesn’t change substantially from call to call. They are expected to go into effect for the 111th Congress, Anderson said.

That would make life easier for staffers, who constantly have to get re-approval from the franking commission on identical scripts, said Brian Kaveney, spokesman for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.).

Those scripts usually just include the recorded call to constituents and the recorded introduction once a constituent joins the call. From there, it’s free rein: A Member may give an introductory speech, and listeners can press a button to ask direct questions.

Lungren was the first Member to use telephone town halls in 2005, and he has conducted more than 60 since then, Kaveney said.

“Sometimes with mail, even though you’re reaching them, [constituents] can just throw it away,” he said. Hosting a teleconference is “a very intimate way to reach all constituents in the district.”

One call usually costs from $2,000 to $4,000, and a Member may talk to thousands of constituents. Sending out a mass mailing, on the other hand, costs about $30,000 and Members never know how many constituents actually read the material.

For example, Honda spent $3,250 to talk to about 10,000 people on his last call. Alternatively, he spent $26,000 to send about 43,000 pieces of franked mail.

Franked mail also has detailed rules on what can be included. A picture can only take up a certain percentage of the page, for example, and Members can’t talk at length about themselves.

But for a telephone town hall, Members just have to ensure that they keep the conversation within the spirit of the chamber’s rules. There’s no lengthy approval process, and constituents get a chance to personally talk to their Members.

“Senators are given a lot of leeway,” Gantman said, “as long as they follow the rules and regulations.”

Kaveney said a constituent will sometimes ask how to donate money to a campaign, but Lungren will “immediately say, ‘This is not political town hall,’” and steer the conversation toward official business.

Still, Members do use telephone town halls for campaigning. While most of Lungren’s telephone town halls are paid for with office funds and have to follow House rules, he also holds separate calls for his re-election campaign.

And tele-town hall companies have noticed an uptick of use in the days leading up to the election blackout periods, though no one knows whether that’s because of the election or just the medium’s increasing popularity.

“I would say there’s been huge spike in interest,” said Marty Stone, owner of Stones’ Phones, a campaign-oriented company that offers tele-town halls to Members. “It’s partly because the blackout deadline is approaching, but it’s also the sheer word of mouth among Members.”

This week, Lungren held a tele-town hall almost every night because of the upcoming blackout period, which begins Aug. 4, Kaverney said. Over the August recess, he will instead hold physical town halls in his district.

Rodney Smith, who owns the company Tele-Town Halls and also provides the service through Stones’ Phones, said many Members still haven’t caught on. But he heralded it as a popular method of interaction among constituents and predicted its use would become more widespread.

So far, he said, about 100 House Members and 20 Senators have used his service. Other companies also offer similar products.