Demand for town hall meetings: Real or orchestrated?





I arrived at the office this morning to find a half-dozen voice mail messages on my machine full of criticism of reps. Jerry McNerney and George Miller for the legislators’ failure to host town hall meetings on health care reform.

It’s a curious thing. Other than Lafayette resident Jason Bezis, who repeatedly smacked former Rep. Ellen Tauscher over what he viewed as her skimpy town hall schedule, I have never had calls demanding town hall meetings.

Ironically, Miller and McNerney are among the most accessible members of Congress in the Bay Area. Miller frequently holds town hall meetings and McNerney has hosted more than 50 “Congress on Your Corner” events.

So, what’s up?

The health care furor is this year’s keynote issue in the traditional public relations blitz known as Congress’ summer recess, where representatives travel home to their districts and attempt to sell or thwart the latest policy. (Does anyone remember the Republicans’ plan to privatize Social Security?)

But the level of vitriol related to health care has clearly exceeded what most of would consider civilized public¬† discourse. National news sources such as the New York Times and MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow are abuzz with reports of orchestrated, GOP-endorsed, extremist behavior among opponents of the Democrats’ health care reform package such as a Maryland representative hung in effigy and a talking points memo that outlines harrassment methods.

No wonder Miller and McNerney have no wish to stand up at a local school gym or a church hall and face an angry mob intent on shutting down discussion rather than promoting debate. A hostile confrontation might make for good television footage but does little to advance the public’s understanding of this highly complex issue.

Instead, the congressmen are planning to hold telephone-style town hall meetings where neither they nor the attendees have physical contact with each other. (Contact the members’ offices for the times, which have not been finalized.)

Elected officials like tele-town halls because hundreds, if not thousands, of people can call in, ask questions and listen to the discussion. Compare that with a a physical town hall, which is limited by the large geography of Congressional districts and, in this care, carries the potential for major disruptions.

Critics dislike them because congressional staffers screen the callers and block people they view as hostile extremists and it does little good to carry protest signs because no one can see them.

But Miller and McNerney should take care not to alienate constituents based on the false assumption that all opponents of the Democrats’ health care package are mindless Rush Limbaugh dittoheads.

“I work in the health care industry and I am adamantly opposed to the Democrats’ proposal,” said an angry¬† voter in the district who wants face-time with McNerney. “But I’m not some mindless puppet of a Sean Hannity or a Rush Limbaugh and it’s insulting to be categorized as some kind of nut job because I disagree with what the Democrats are doing. I have legitimate issues to discuss and I want the opportunity to make them to my elected representative.”

Lisa Vorderbrueggen