Members of Congress are set to return to their districts this weekend for their first weeklong recess since Donald Trump's inauguration. Heading home during legislative breaks is nothing new, but this year most Republicans are foregoing a hallowed recess tradition: holding in-person town halls where lawmakers take questions from constituents in a high school gym, local restaurant, or college classroom.
After outpourings of rage at some early town halls — including crowds at an event near Salt Lake City yelling "Do your job!" at Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee — many Republicans are ducking in-person events altogether. Instead they're opting for more controlled Facebook Live or "tele-town halls," where questions can be screened by press secretaries and followups are limited — as are the chances of becoming the next viral meme of the Left.
For the first two months of the new Congress, the 292 Republicans have scheduled just 88 in-person town hall events — and 35 of those sessions are for Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, according to a tabulation conducted by Legistorm. In the first two months of the previous Congress in 2015, by contrast, Republicans held 222 in-person town hall events.
Republicans like Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin hosted multiple in-person town halls at the beginning of 2015 but have scheduled none for the first two months of 2017. Thune's office declined to discuss this on the record and Johnson's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Legistorm updates its list daily with software that scrapes from congressional schedules, Facebook pages, press releases, and Twitter accounts of members of congress and their staff. As a result, Legistorm said that the 88 events may not be the ultimate total because there can occasionally be a brief lag time.
For example, Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina created two town hall events on Facebook on Tuesday afternoon, and Legistorm had not listed them as of Wednesday morning. Sanford told VICE News that he thinks in-person town halls "are important, particularly getting out of space you control and getting into space that's neutral."
"What happens in politics is that over time, you can get increasingly insulated from people that have a strongly held point of view that's different [from yours]," he said. Sessions like tele-town halls aren't a good substitute, he said, because "oftentimes they will screen their calls and those forums can be manipulated."
Republicans who get roughed up at their town halls have taken to dismissing the attendees as professional organizers. Chaffetz called his hostile crowd "more of a paid attempt to bully and intimidate" him over White House ethics issues, a sentiment echoed by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who said that recent marches and protests against Trump are "a very paid, AstroTurf-type movement."
While there is no evidence of paid protesters attending town halls, it is true that Democratic activists have been organizing to manufacture viral moments of confrontation like the tea party movement did in the summer of 2009.
The Indivisible Project, a group started by former congressional aides, wrote a "how-to" guide for liberals looking to resist Trump. "Tea partiers used these events to great effect — both to directly pressure their [members of Congress] and to attract media to their cause," the co-founders wrote of town halls.
They also provide PR tips to help make the protests appear pervasive and produce made-for-TV moments:
- "Sit by yourself or in groups of two, and spread out through the room. This will help reinforce the impression of broad consensus."
- "Look friendly or neutral so that staffers will call on you."
- "Prepare questions ahead of time."
- "Don't give up the mic until you're satisfied with the answer."
And of course, "Record everything!"
"Unfavorable exchanges caught on video can be devastating for [members of Congress]," they write. "These clips can be shared through social media and picked up by local and national media."
Tea party protesters did this in opposition to Obamacare during the 2009 summer recess. Though Obamacare passed 7 months later, the town hall protests scared many moderate members of Congress and helped fuel the movement that successfully took back the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterms and made gains in the Senate.
That experience was so jarring to Democrats that it dampened enthusiasm for in-person events for years. "Democrats Skip Town Halls to Avoid Voter Rage," the New York Times reported in 2010. But Republicans appear to be embracing this strategy of avoidance with even more vigor than the Democrats ever did. Despite outnumbering Democrats in Congress 292 to 241, Republicans are holding 19 fewer in-person town hall events than their colleagues across the aisle in the first two months (54 fewer if you don't count Sensenbrenner's 35).
But ultimately both parties are holding fewer in-person events to avoid unwanted viral moments. Senior Democratic lawmakers this week asked progressive favorite Sen. Bernie Sanders to reach out to activists and urge them to not protest at Democratic town halls, according to the Washington Post.
"I bet if you looked at the number of members of Congress holding fundraisers next week during recess, it would be nearly 100 percent," said Ezra Levin, co-founder of the Indivisible Project. Constituents should demand that 100 percent also attend town halls, he added.
Some constituents are doing just that. One strategy for activists has been to host their own town halls and invite their representatives to attend. The office of Rep. John Carter of Texas declined such an invitation, citing "safety reasons." Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona also rejected a similar overture, calling it a "political ambush."
Another method has been to confront senators and representative in public places and demand they hold a town hall. Shivers went down the spines of many Republican communications directors on the Hill this week when a few dozen protesters confronted Sen. Steve Daines of Montana at the airport.
Matt Powell-Palm, one of the activists there, said the demonstration was organized by several progressive groups in Montana, including a local chapter of Indivisible.
Naturally, he filmed the whole thing.