How Citizens Can Influence Congress at Town Hall Meetings | Commentary

Posted June 23, 2015 at 12:59pm

Now that summer is here, legislators are increasing their scheduling of town hall meetings back in their districts. Recently some myths have emerged about this time honored aspect of our democracy. Some groups are claiming (usually tied to a fundraising pitch), “Congress isn’t listening to citizens” and is holding fewer town hall meetings. This is false.

In fact, with so many newer members and redistricting not far behind, we still see hundreds of in-person interactions available. Last summer alone, CQ Roll Call’s Knowlegis service tracked more than 400 town hall meetings. There’s still the lingering memory of the unpleasant town hall meetings during the health care debate of 2009, with angry shouting matches of citizens berating legislators. This also is no longer the case. Town hall meetings have returned to their normal, slightly boring, display of our democratic dialog at work.

And the numbers have reverted back to normal as well, with most town hall meetings garnering around two dozen citizens. This means for citizens and groups hoping to have meaningful interactions with Congress, now is a great opportunity.

My first job in Congress was as a press secretary for a representative with a suburban Washington district. During a four-year period, I went to about 100 town hall meetings and saw firsthand what got his attention and what earned his ire. For those hoping to connect supporters to lawmakers this summer, here are some key tips.

Go early and connect with staff. Every town hall meeting is staffed by a senior district or state staffer. Many people think the D.C. staff are the only important players in the policymaking process (including some D.C. based congressional staff). Yet building relationships with staff in the state offices is essential to any advocacy strategy. They have the potential of becoming champions for your cause, as they view part of their customer service role as an advocate for the constituent.

Bring talking points. Some citizens are intimidated by members of Congress. (I know we in D.C. know members are fairly normal human beings, but back home some are actually revered.) This means having some clear guidance on the key elements of the issue not only guarantees a consistency of message but also acts as a shot of courage to the citizen. Leave-behinds reiterating the position can be helpful too. I interviewed a senator for a book I was writing on citizen advocacy and asked him what he got out of town hall meetings. He went to his desk and showed me a set of talking points a constituent had given him at a recent meeting. I asked, “What are you going to do with that piece of paper?” He replied, “I’m going to give it to the senior legislative assistant on this issue and ask him to get back to the constituent.” There may have been 50 people at that town hall meeting, and that one constituent was more powerful than the other 49 because he brought a piece of paper.

Bring a friend (or a dozen friends). Nothing says “listen to me” to a politician more than a small mob. While unruly gangs are most unwelcome, having four or five constituents articulating the same cause in one setting can have a strong impact. And, if you can come in matching T-shirts, all the better. No kidding —that will get the rest of the room asking about your group and your issue.

Be polite. Congress is ridiculed, mocked and derided on a daily basis in mainstream media and on the Internet. So it’s logical Americans see the opportunity to meet with a legislator face-to-face as a chance to “give them a piece of their mind.”

Regrettably, this is not only uncivil behavior, it’s bad advocacy. A few years ago a House member was confronted at a town hall meeting by a constituent who angrily shouted, “I pay your salary!” The legislator politely replied, “You want your $1.21 back?” (This evoked glee in every congressional staffer who secretly always wished their boss would respond this way to bad-mannered constituents.) If you want to persuade someone to your point of view, yelling is never a good way to start the conversation. Counsel your supporters who have watched a few too many cable news shows to dial back the rhetoric a notch. The way to win friends and influence people on Capitol Hill is not to hit them with a verbal hammer; the best method is to kill them with kindness.

Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and a former staffer.