Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is confronted by angry voters at a town hall meeting.… (Ross D. Franklin, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — During recent recesses, members of Congress who returned home to host town hall meetings participated in a phenomenon that changed the national agenda but also subjected them to raucous sessions with constituents venting anger in face-to-face showdowns.
This summer, with approval ratings of Congress as low as 13%, they appear to have learned their lesson. Washington lawmakers are using the political version of crowd control, shying away from wide-open forums and choosing alternative appearances to avoid the attacks that dominated the 2009 healthcare town halls or this year's outbursts over Republican proposals to restructure Medicare.
Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the architect of the GOP budget, took a bashing at some of the 19 public "listening sessions" last spring in Wisconsin after the House passed his proposal to revamp Medicare. This month, Ryan opted for a conference call to connect with thousands of constituents.
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi also took a less unpredictable approach. She toured female-owned small businesses in San Francisco, took questions at a Bay Area job fair and is speaking at events across the country this month.
Freshman Rep. Tim Scott, a "tea party" favorite, is squiring GOP presidential nominees around his district in South Carolina, an early primary state, and letting the candidates answer questions.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was well aware that constituents wanted to "express their frustration."
"By the way, 10% of the American people, I understand, approve of the Congress. Not one in that 10% has attended one of my town hall meetings," McCain said this week on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Lawmakers seem to prefer meeting constituents in more controlled venues, avoiding rabble-rousers or amateur videographers who may turn them into the next online spectacle. Some events are hosted by groups that charge entrance fees, another way to filter who is in the audience.
"They're trying to avoid YouTube moments," said John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican operative who recently blogged on the dearth of town hall meetings.
The lack of public face time with lawmakers is another byproduct of the tumultuous state of political affairs in the country, an era when partisan lines divide the nation and voters seem to have little affection for their elected officials.
Polls show Americans not only want to throw the bums out, a view voters often express, but they want to dislodge their own representative — a colossal shift in voter attitudes.
A Pew Research Center survey released Thursday said 86% of Americans were "frustrated or angry" with the federal government. Republican leaders' approval ratings dropped to 22%, with Democrats not much better at 29%.
Then there is the danger lawmakers recognize but do not much discuss: making themselves readily available to the public with nominal security. In January, a man shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in the head and killed six others at a Congress on Your Corner event in Tucson. Giffords is in the midst of a lengthy recovery.
The quiet August also reflects a country in economic distress, with a 9.1% national unemployment rate bringing hardship to many families.
"It's pretty subdued — I think that's what the national mood is right now," said Adam Sarvana, press secretary to Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who has held several theme-specific town halls but has avoided open-ended events "for people to throw tomatoes at him."
The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which Grijalva helps lead, along with the Congressional Black Caucus, has held themed town halls — on jobs — across the nation. It's an approach that has helped to change the tone of the meetings.
"People are there to learn how to get a job, not to yell about it," Sarvana said.
Some Republicans new to Congress are holding town halls — and getting an earful. Freshman Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.) has held several events with senior citizens to tamp down concerns about changes to Medicare under the proposed GOP budget.
"Everyone's really concerned, from a seniors' perspective, what's going to happen to their benefits," said Nathaniel Sillin, a Hayworth spokesman.
Others are controlling the settings of their meetings.
Freshman Rep. Ben Quayle, an Arizona Republican who came under fire at a town hall event in May over the GOP plan for Medicare, hosted a job fair in Phoenix this month that drew 1,300 people. But he has passed on town halls in favor of "visiting retirement facilities, local businesses and other organizations throughout the district in addition to holding regular meetings with constituents in his district office," his spokesman said.
In many ways, the success of the orchestrated conservative attacks on President Obama's healthcare proposal in the summer of 2009 created a template for activists to target lawmakers, turning town halls into a public relations nightmare.