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.