WASHINGTON — Reps. Leonard Lance of New Jersey and Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania appear to be the only swing-district Republicans who voted for their party’s bill to replace Obamacare who will directly face constituents over the April recess, according to a USA TODAY analysis of scheduled town halls compiled by Townhallproject.com.
Fourteen Republicans from competitive congressional districts sit on the three congressional committees that voted last month for their party’s controversial health care plan before GOP leaders pulled the bill from the House floor because it lacked support to pass. The lack of town hall meetings in key swing districts during a spring break that lasts until April 23 underscores the party’s precarious political position on health care and peaking civic activism by progressives.
Costello and Lance had both voted for the bill in committee but opposed the final bill, saying changes made by House leaders made it more likely the bill would raise costs and reduce coverage for their constituents.
The migration away from public forums has been going on for months, despite complaints from constituents and local media. There have been roughly 30 recent newspaper editorials slamming lawmakers for avoiding town halls and calling on members to face their voters, not only in bluer portions of the country like New York but also in critical battlegrounds like Pennsylvania’s 6th and 7th districts, represented by Reps. Pat Meehan and Costello.
Costello’s office screened participants for his Saturday town hall through the online reservation site Eventbrite and forbid videotaping, leading the local Democratic Party chair to call the event “staged.” Others lawmakers are holding question-and-answer events over the phone or Facebook Live, a social media tool allowing them to speak to a camera while avoiding uncomfortable public exchanges with the citizens they represent.
After a February congressional break generated spirited and even hostile face-to-face meetings with constituents — including one lawmaker who snuck out a back door to avoid an angry crowd — grass-roots organizers credited the power of those images in sending a message to moderate Republicans.
The GOP bill to repeal and replace Obamacare stood at 17% approval by the time it was pulled from the floor, according to a late March Quinnipiac survey. Republican leaders announced just before the break that they are still negotiating provisions of the bill and have not given up on passing it this year.
“Republicans have already squandered a lot of political capital on a bill that went nowhere. The longer the health care issue lingers the more displeased members of both bases are,” said David Wasserman, the House analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
One member who’s drawn criticism for avoiding town halls is Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill. In an email, his spokesman said the congressman has averaged more than one telephone town hall per month. “As we’ve seen around the country, large, unstructured events tend to devolve into shouting matches. Both sides compete with each other over who can scream the loudest,” said David Pash. Tele-town halls are “a much more effective way to engage a larger number of people, including those who aren’t able to make it to an in-person event,” he said.
Rep. Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania, another vulnerable Republican who voted for the bill in committee, isn’t doing town halls, but his spokesman said he hasn’t ruled them out and he’s received and responded to more than 42,000 constituent emails, letters and phone calls and held tele-town halls. “There are numerous ways Rep. Smucker can engage with his constituents. We are constantly determining which combination of the many different outreach tools we can use is most effective,” said Bill Jaffee.
While the strategy may be smart in the short term, allowing members to avoid images of themselves on the defensive, in the longer term it could hurt, said Ross Baker, a political science professor who specializes in Congress at Rutgers University. Just like the Tea Party-driven protests against Obamacare in 2009 came with a price for House Democrats, who lost control of the House in 2010, Republicans should not ignore the current backlash, he said. “If there’s anything worse than being on the wrong side of a political issue it’s appearing cowardly and not facing your constituents,” said Baker. “Politics is all about accountability,” he said.
Progressive organizers are flipping the script by scheduling town halls and inviting the members to attend them, setting up empty chairs and posting “missing” signs when the invitation is declined.
“It’s not an attractive quality in an elected official to be as nervous as a Christmas goose when you’re dealing with your constituents,” said Baker. “It’s something people remember.”
One top target for Democrats, Mimi Walters of California’s 45th district, acknowledged in a recent radio talk show that she used to hold town halls but she won’t anymore because she believes activists simply use them to generate campaign attacks. “The whole goal is to try to get as much press as they can, and then try to get me to say something that they could use against me in the campaign,” she said on AM 870’s The Answer. Walters, who has held 10 town halls since 2015, also said town hall attendees “want to get a lot of press.”
“These members are staring at the ghosts of 2009, and images of angry town halls held by Democrats are making them think twice,” said Wasserman. “I don’t think anyone begrudges members for wanting to take steps to make sure a town hall is a civil affair. But you don’t want to appear as if you’re dodging,” said Wasserman.
For instance, during a debate last year, Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska bashed his opponent, incumbent Democrat Brad Ashford, for avoiding constituents. “I will be doing town halls in every part of this district,” he said at the time. Over the recess, he is holding personal meetings with constituents and taking an overseas trip but will not hold town halls, according to his office, which says he is planning to announce one for April 29.
Costello’s town hall restrictions drew the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It raises serious Constitutional concerns for a sitting Congressman to host a public event at a courthouse, forbid any recording, and deny entry to any constituent who doesn’t turn over their cell phone at the door,” ACLU spokesman Karthik Ganapathy said in a statement.
On Friday, Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., took questions on a wide variety of topics via Facebook Live, with about 100 people tuning in. The event demonstrated the limits of social media since there was no opportunity for follow-up questions. For instance, while Bucshon addressed the outstanding health care bill, his comments were vague. “We’re working through that. It’s a difficult and complicated process because health care is difficult and complicated,” said Bucshon.
The only pushback was a parade of angry emoticon faces dancing across the screen, mixed in with a few “thumbs up” emoticons.
Bucshon promised to interact more directly with constituents in the coming weeks. “You’ll find me all over the district,” he said.