Editorial: Bring back Congressional town hall tradition

U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski hasn’t had a town hall meeting in two years. It’s time to change that.

The Elkhart Truth
9/13/15

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U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski (Jennifer Shephard/The Elkhart Truth)

No more than a dozen years ago, the political landscape looked much different and certainly calmer.


Back then, local members of Congress, eager to keep in touch with their constituents, would return to the district for the annual August recess and host a series of town hall meetings throughout the district.

Those meetings were the standard approach for lawmakers to update residents in person on what they are working on in Washington D.C., and – just as importantly – a chance for residents to quiz the lawmaker about policy issues.

Often these meetings would attract a few dozen people at the most and the atmosphere was usually cordial. But circumstances began to change in 2009, when the health care reform debate took center stage and the tea party movement simultaneously took root. Suddenly, town hall meetings became almost caustic.

Add to that the use of social media, including YouTube, and many lawmakers soon learned the hard way that any misstep or angry confrontation can suddenly become the Internet’s latest viral sensation.

Fast forward to today. In the 2nd Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski has not conducted a town hall meeting in two years. The last one hosted by the Jimtown Republican was held in Rochester on the southern outskirts of the district and at least an hour-long drive from the most populated areas that she serves.

Despite the distance, more than 100 people, including many from Elkhart County, attended the meeting. The atmosphere remained civil as Walorski talked about her policy priorities and faced a few tough questions from the crowd.

In the time since, Walorski has continued to return to the district during the August recess, but has instead loaded up her public schedule with smaller, more orchestrated events themed around issues such as manufacturing, health care and veterans.

Still, something is missing. The give-and-take of ideas in a public setting has disappeared. In a time when the public seems more engaged and more opinionated about public policy, the need for congressional town hall meetings is even more necessary.

Walorski defends the themed tours and says those events have provided a chance to meet with hundreds of people in every part of the district. She also points to the use of social media as another avenue for constituency communications.

Adding more events to her August recess schedule remains a goal, Walorski said, but it also becomes a matter of logistics.

Certainly, we can’t blame this on logistics. It’s not hard to call a meeting and invite the public, though some thought should be given to security to keep both lawmakers and the public safe from potential physical harm.

Technically one could happen over coffee at a local restaurant or on a Saturday morning at a local chamber of commerce. Even during the contentious session earlier this year in the Indiana General Assembly, state senators and representatives showed up at Third House meetings in Elkhart and Goshen to field questions and update constituents. Even when it wasn’t pleasant, it was real conversation and remained civil.

As Sean Savage, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College, said in a recent article in the Elkhart Truth, taking pointed questions from constituents comes with the territory of being a member of Congress. It’s part of being elected by the people, for the people.

The idea of fielding tough questions “may be uncomfortable and difficult and embarrassing for the elected official. But frankly, that’s part of the job,” Savage said.

We encourage Walorski to work out the logistics next August – or sooner – and host a town hall meeting in South Bend, Mishawaka or Elkhart where her voters, including those who didn’t vote for her, can hear from her and ask her questions.

Walorski has been accessible and in front of the public, but returning to the open town hall format would show her commitment to fully representing the people of northern Indiana.

Some clamor for U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski to hold more town hall meetings

Instead, GOP lawmaker schedules theme-based ’tours’ that focus on specific issues and aren’t open to general public

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U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski talks at a town hall meeting she held two years ago in Rochester. She has not conducted a traditional town hall meeting since. (Truth Photo By Dan Spalding)

(Related articles on Town Halls and Walorski will be found here and here.)

The Elkhart Truth (use this link to see “comments” from 21 individuals)
By Tim Vandenback
9/5/15

ELKHART — U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski regularly returns to the 2nd District and her Jimtown home from Washington, D.C.

She recently finished the last of three tours in the district focused on government regulation, health care and education.

“Right now, in this little block of time that we have, we want to make sure we get into every single county, and to all parts of the district, and make sure that we’re accessible to everybody in the district,” Walorski said Tuesday on her education tour. “I think we’re really accessible.”

What she didn’t do while in the district, however, was hold a traditional town hall meeting — where members of the public can simply show up and speak out about whatever is on their minds. In fact, it has been more than two years since the Republican legislator hosted her one and only town hall meeting — on Aug. 21, 2013.

While Walorski has taken part in her issue-themed tours, some grumble that such gatherings, typically involving visits with pre-screened constituents, aren’t enough.

“Congresswoman Walorski has done a manufacturing tour, a farming tour, an education tour. But she has yet to hold a town hall forum,” said Chad Crabree, secretary of the Elkhart County Democratic Party and a candidate for Elkhart City Council in November. “Why can’t I talk to the person the residents voted for?”

To be sure, Walorski will meet with constituents who hold a wide range of views. She or staff members, for instance, have met in her Mishawaka office on varied occasions with representatives from the North Central Indiana AFL-CIO Council, fielding the group’s calls for immigration reform and a raise in the minimum wage.

But Tony Flora, president of the labor group, says meeting organized groups like his that represent a defined constituency is one thing. Meeting with rank-and-file constituents who don’t have the backing of a larger organization like his — letting them ask their questions, air their concerns and have their say — is another.

Yes, town hall meetings have the potential to get unruly, he acknowledges. “On the other hand, the general public should have the opportunity to say, ’Let’s talk about these important issues,’” Flora said.

On the flip side politically, Dale Stickel, former head of the Elkhart County Republican Party, said Walorski’s predecessor, Joe Donnelly, a Democrat and now a U.S. senator, didn’t seem to have very many town hall meetings. The heads of the Elkhart County and St. Joseph County Republican parties, Mary Nisly and Roy Saenz, didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment.

POLITICS ’CRUDER, MORE OUTSPOKEN’

Some in the national media announced the demise of the town hall meeting back in 2013, around the time Walorski held her last one in Rochester.

The New York Times, for one, reported  in 2013, that a push by tea party groups dating to 2009 to confront lawmakers at town hall events seemed to result in “fewer members of Congress now willing to face their constituents.” The article was headlined, “A former engine of the GOP, the town hall meeting, cools down.”

“I think, generally, politics has become, I don’t know, cruder, more outspoken,” said Sean Savage, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College in South Bend.

The upshot at a town hall meeting can be an “uncontrolled audience,” Savage said, and uncomfortable confrontations between angry constituetents and a lawmaker. Add the advent of social media and instantly uploadable video to the mix, and an awkward moment or inartful statement can be broadcast on places like YouTube for all the world to see.

Still, it’s not so clear-cut that town hall meetings, in fact, are on the wane as a political institution.

“It’s hard to measure that scientifically,” said Noah Wall, the national director of grassroots for FreedomWorks, a conservative group based in Washington, D.C., that pushes for smaller government. Many lawmakers have them, he said, but only publicize them locally, so it’s hard to gauge their frequency on a national level.

FreedomWorks pushed for town hall meetings across the country back in August 2013, when Walorski had hers, as part of the group’s push at the time for Congress to defund the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The group still advocates for the town hall format, and Wall suggested lawmakers should have at least one per year in each of the major cities they represent.

‘SEE HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE’

Walorski defended the themed tours she typically conducts on varied topics as a means to connect with the public. She makes it a point to visit each of the 10 north-central Indiana counties within her district.

“The tours that we do have been so successful. We can see hundreds of people all over the district, north, south, east, west,” she said during the education tour stop at Roosevelt STEAM Academy. On her three recent tours, dating to Aug. 12, she visited seven businesses, two farms and 10 schools, not to mention a hospital, a health medical clinic and three other facilities on the health care tour. 

It doesn’t stop there. “People can say what they want…(but) if you look at our Facebook and Twitter and things like that, folks have a chance to say whatever they want to say,” Walorski said.

She hinted, vaguely, at the possibility of different sorts of district activities, or more of them, though not specifically a town hall meeting. “It’s just trying to make the logistics work, and we continue to work on packing more into the schedule when I’m home,” she said.

The Jefferson Center of St. Paul, Minn., which aims to promote citizen involvement in crafting of public policy, questions the value of town hall meetings. Typically, participants don’t represent a balanced cross-section of constituents, but rather, those who may feel strongly on an issue, said Andrew Rockway, program manager for the group.

Rather, the Jefferson Center advocates use of what it calls citizen juries, groups representing the demographics of an area that meet in controlled settings to get expert input on an issue and come up with recommended solutions.

Many other observers, though, are adamant on the importance of town hall meetings, allowing the public to interact one-on-one with their elected federal representatives, size them up personally. Even as Crabtree and Wall touted the import of civility, Savage said discomfort from pointed questions comes with the territory.

“That may be uncomfortable and difficult and embarrassing for the elected official. But frankly, that’s part of the job,” Savage said.

Indeed, worse than the discomfort a politician may experience by having a town hall meeting is the disconnect by not having one. Avoiding such gatherings is “a further distancing between elected officials and constituents,” he said.

(Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack or visit him on Facebook.)

Town Hall Meetings: When did your congressman last hold one?

By Russ Phillips

My Congresswoman (Jackie Walorski), in her second term, has not held a town hall meeting, thus far. She does meet with special interest groups as well as with businesses and industries and does regularly appear on a local radio show. However, she has not held a town hall meeting where any citizen is welcome to attend and engage her in conversation. This is most unfortunate.

In a previous article it was pointed out that the House will be in recess for eighteen weeks – yes, 18 – during this year and the Senate for thirteen weeks – yes, 13. And this does not account for individual Mondays and Fridays when sometimes they are not in session. Yet, my Congresswoman has not held even one town hall meeting.

My Congresswoman has recently announced she will be running for a third term. However, she has not announced any plans to hold a town hall meeting.

Recently I ran across the following article:

Congress out of session does not mean it isn’t working

The Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University
By Josh Huder (Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute)

The Fix blog at the Washington Post has an article arguing that since 1978, Congress has only worked a full week 14% of the time. This is a common—and extraordinarily misleading– jab at Congress. While it is easy to criticize an institution that frequently makes itself an easy target, it’s a disservice that unnecessarily undermines trust in government.

First, it oversimplifies lawmakers’ jobs. Members of Congress really have two jobs: represent their constituents and govern. These responsibilities do not always go hand in hand. Representing constituents means speaking with them in person, holding town hall meetings, organizing rallies, attending to casework, and otherwise being present in the district or state they represent. This is not easily done from a Washington office. Supporting or opposing legislation is an important part of a Member’s job. However, it does not come close to capturing Members’ range of responsibilities. This is why even when Congress is out of session, Members are at work. Most Members of Congress work a 5-6 day week. The representative aspect of Congress’s job is almost completely ignored in these statistics.

Second, the chambers rarely work in concert. The article concludes on this note: “It is hard to escape the implications of Friday being the weekday on which the House and Senate are least commonly in session.” Actually, both chambers do not need to be in session at the same time. It is not a requirement to legislate nor are the chambers routinely working on the same issues.

The House and Senate are independent, uncoordinated bodies. They work on different issues at different times and most often do not coordinate their schedules. For example, last Thursday (September 18th) the Senate passed 19 bills on its final work day of the week. Among the bills it passed were the Debbie Smith Re-authorization Act (H.R. 4323), Paul D. Wellstone Muscular Dystrophy Amendments (H.R. 594), and the Prevent Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (H.R. 4980). Those bills passed the House on April 7th, July 28th, and July 23rd, respectively. The House did not need to be in session for those bills to pass the Senate, then go to the President. The only time the two chambers need to be in session at the same time is if there is a pending deadline Congress needs to meet (e.g. the debt ceiling, avoiding government shutdown, etc). Otherwise, being in Washington at the same time is not a prerequisite to enacting laws.

Lastly, there is no evidence to suggest more legislative days lead to more legislation. The 111th Congress was in session fewer days than the 112th Congress. Having fewer legislative days did not prevent the 111th Congress from being among the most successful in congressional history while the 112th Congress was the least productive since the Civil War. Similarly, the Senate has often worked more days than the House. However, the Senate routinely passes fewer bills than the lower chamber. It is in session longer because its legislative process requires more time for bills and motions to move through the legislative process.

Congress has a lot of problems. Being in session at the same time or holding longer work weeks isn’t one of them. The 113th Congress has been extraordinarily unproductive, but fewer days in session have little to do with that.

(Did you note in the above article, “Representing constituents means…holding town hall meetings…”? BTW, do your Congressmen and Senators hold town hall meetings? – Admin)

Rep. Jackie Walorski was illusive and not forthright

(The two previous articles, “The decline of local news is threatening citizen engagement” and “Pravda on the Plains: Indiana’s New Propaganda Machine” pointed out that elected officials increasingly are wanting to control the message and the way it is transmitted. This is even more true among incumbents. Any candidate for office including incumbents should be willing to commit to periodic town hall meetings with questions from their constituents, not just from reporters. – Russ Phillips)

At the Wabash, IN debate October 21, 2014 between Joe Bock and Rep. Walorski (Indiana 2nd congressional district) the following was asked of both candidates: “In your campaigns both of you have mentioned ‘Social Security’ and ‘Medicare.’ What needs to occur, if anything, regarding these programs for both current and future recipients of these benefits?” Questions had to be submitted in writing in advance. 

Bock was agreeable to responding, however, Walorski was not. As a result, according to the debate rules, the question was not asked since it was required that both give the “okay” for questions from the audience. 

Unfortunately the debate was cut short about 20 minutes from its intended length due to only six audience questions receiving the “okay.” Following the debate both campaigns were asked how many questions were submitted by the audience. Walorski’s did not respond. Bock’s was reluctant to respond because an exact count was not kept although eventually said, “probably 50 or so.” 

Four years ago Walorski supported privatizing Social Security and referred to it, Medicare and Medicaid as going “bankrupt.” During her most recent campaign she commented, “Social Security is a sacred commitment we’ve made to our seniors” and “I’ll oppose any cuts in Social Security or Medicare.” Where does Walorski stand? 

Social Security and Medicare are not only an interest of current recipients but also of all who currently are making contributions from their paychecks. 

– Russ Phillips