Congress returns from its August recess with America on mute

With few in-person town halls, lawmakers risk being trapped ‘in a bubble’

Constituents gesture during a town hall in New Jersey’s 7th District in 2017. The pandemic has limited opportunities for members to hold such in-person meetings, and that is not a healthy development, Murphy writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Constituents gesture during a town hall in New Jersey’s 7th District in 2017. The pandemic has limited opportunities for members to hold such in-person meetings, and that is not a healthy development, Murphy writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 9, 2020 at 6:00am

“Dang, this is weird,” Sen. Doug Jones yelled Monday night, saying what nearly every politician in America is thinking this year, as the Alabama Democrat looked out over a sea of parked cars and headlights instead of the usual faces and eyeballs at his latest campaign event, a car rally in a drive-in movie theater in Leeds, Alabama.  “This is different, but we’re in a different world, folks.”

“Different” doesn’t come close to capturing how much the global coronavirus pandemic has changed campaigning as we know it.  But it’s not just campaigns that have changed for members of Congress — so has the job itself.  From votes to caucuses to fly-ins, almost nothing of the world pre-COVID has remained untouched, most especially town hall meetings. 

The cattle calls with constituents used to festoon recess calendars and put sometimes cloistered members face to face with the people they represent. But with cases of COVID-19 still on the rise, nearly all members have moved their town hall meetings to Zoom or conference calls, with limited constituent questions prescreened by staff.  At a time of pandemic, recession and racial unrest, American voters are literally on mute.

Without members and constituents facing each other in real-life settings, COVID-19 has managed to sanitize politics right along with people’s hands and homes. But that’s not a healthy development. According to the Town Hall Project, a nonprofit that tracks congressional town halls, just five members of Congress managed to hold in-person town hall meetings this August recess, compared to 214 in August of last year. In 2019, there were 2,695 town halls in total.

Policy and policymakers

Town hall meetings in the past, especially during August recess, have had the power to move legislation or stop it, to make a member’s career or preview an early fall. In August 2009, angry constituents flooded town hall meetings to sound off about the Affordable Care Act being debated in both chambers. One event in Reston, Virginia, featured so much screaming a young woman told me on the way out, “That was better than ‘Jerry Springer!’” When Congress came back into session that September, much of the momentum for  universal health care coverage had stalled out, and more modest reforms eventually passed the House and Senate. 

During that same August recess in 2009, more than 1,000 people showed up to a town hall hosted by PennsylvaniaSen. Arlen Specter, who got absolutely torched by furious constituents who were enraged by the ACA, the economy and, frankly, Specter himself. 

“One day, God’s going to judge you and the rest of your (expletive) cronies on the Hill, and then you will get your just desserts!” one voter told Specter, a Republican who had become a Democrat that year, only to lose a Democratic primary a few months later. 

Sen. Arlen Specter gets an earful from a constituent at a town hall in Lebanon, Penn., in August 2008. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In 2017, Rep. Dave Brat famously complained to a private group that he could not get away from women asking him when and where to find him at his next town hall.  “The women are in my grill no matter where I go,” the Virginia Republican said.

At this next town hall, women showed up with signs that read, “It’s grillin’ time,” and jeered him for saying that Obamacare had “largely collapsed.” Brat lost his reelection bid in 2018 to one of those women up in his grill, Democrat Abigail Spanberger, and efforts to repeal and replace the ACA failed. Those 2017 town halls also gave members an early view that eliminating the law entirely was not what many of their voters wanted to see. 

‘In a bubble’

But the town halls have been almost silent this year, even with 6.5 million Americans infected with COVID-19, 16 million Americans unemployed and millions of children kept home from school.  

A few members like California Democratic Rep. Josh Harder have held drive-thru town halls for constituents. And Texas GOP Rep. Mike Conaway has multiple in-person town halls on his schedule this week (masks, please). But Nathan Williams, executive director of the Town Hall Project, said local restrictions and basic safety guidelines have made it impossible for most members to hold town halls in person in their districts. That means crucial feedback is going by the wayside at a time members of Congress need it most.

“This year, and this August recess, members are missing a really valuable opportunity to connect and to hear how these crises are affecting people’s lives in real human ways. Our concern is that too many of them are in a bubble,” he said. 

Williams suggested that a little creativity could go a long way to making online town halls more valuable, including having a journalist or nonprofit leader moderate constituent questions instead of a staff member. Without hearing from constituents directly, Williams said, the true scope of Americans’ struggles with lost jobs or children staying home from school or just trying to keep their families safe seems to be getting lost on the town hall Zoom calls his group is monitoring.  

“Have your staff protect you a little bit less,” Williams offered. “Because they are protecting you from hearing what’s really on your constituents’ minds.”

To take that one step further, it’s hard to see how Congress can be “of the people, by the people and for the people,” if they have no actual contact with people. It’s not easy in a pandemic, but it’s incumbent on this Congress to find a way.

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.