About a month ago, the House Republican Conference produced "exceptionally detailed" guides for their members on how best to survive the lengthy August recess. Party officials offered some rather remarkable advice in the "planning kit," including "planting questions" so local events remain on message.
Of course, that assumes lawmakers will actually host local events in the first place. The New York Times reports today that this summer, many members of Congress have suddenly lost their interest in town-hall forums.
Though Republicans in recent years have harnessed the political power of these open mic, face-the-music sessions, people from both parties say they are noticing a decline in the number of meetings. They also say they are seeing Congressional offices go to greater lengths to conceal when and where the meetings take place. [...]With memories of those angry protests still vivid, it seems that one of the unintended consequences of a movement that thrived on such open, often confrontational interactions with lawmakers is that there are fewer members of Congress now willing to face their constituents.
A unnamed Senate Republican aide told the NYT, "Ninety percent of the audience will be there interested in what you have to say. It's the other 5 or 10 percent who aren't. They're there to make a point and, frankly, to hijack the meeting."
I don't want to sound unsympathetic. I've never worked for a member of Congress, but I imagine it's quite frustrating when you go to the trouble of organizing an event and "planting questions," only to see some local troublemakers derail your plans.
Of course, I'd remind these lawmakers that democracy can be messy, and that hiding from constituents doesn't seem especially healthy.
The Times piece doesn't quantify the observation, so it's hard to say with confidence whether there's been a significant drop in the number of town-hall discussions or if this is just something "people from both parties say they are noticing." Once the recess ends, it'd be interesting to see an official tally to bolster the point -- counting up all of the meetings held by all of the members, and comparing the totals to previous years.
But if the argument is based on a real trend, it's worth considering in detail why, exactly, members who used to love town-hall meetings suddenly changed their mind.
It's easy to blame annoying loudmouths who show up and cause trouble, but I find it hard to believe this is a new phenomenon.
Rather, I think there are two other angles to this. The first is that the Republican Party base is starting to push for things Republican Party lawmakers don't want to deliver -- a government shutdown, national default, impeachment, hearings into the president's birth certificate, a special committee to investigate Benghazi conspiracy theories -- and town-hall forums put GOP officials in an awkward position of disappointing the far-right activists the party has worked so hard to rile up.
The second is the flip-side: the Republican Party base is pushing for extremism, many Republican officials are going along, and invariably someone catches this on video.
Note, for example, that three GOP members of Congress have embraced the birther conspiracy theory in the last two weeks -- and in each instance, they were speaking at a town-hall forum, being egged on by birther constituents.
In other words, we're looking at a dynamic in which Republicans (a) will be pressed to say something stupid; or (b) will go ahead and say something stupid.
Is it any wonder so many members are hiding?