Democracy On Their Terms: Republicans Lock Down Town Halls To Stifle Critics

August 29, 2011 6:16 a.m.

Starting in 2009, the current Republican Congressional majority rode into power on a wave of voter frustration voiced through organized protest at town halls. So it’s perhaps out of fear that the same thing will happen to their majority in 2012 that Republicans found new and novel ways to stifle the voices of constituents who might criticize them.

All across the country, Republican members of Congress have done their best to duck their critics this August, traditionally the month when town halls can become heated and policy agendas shifted. But with congressional and Republican approval ratings way, way down, it seems the GOP is preoccupied with quieting those who might criticize them over facing the music back home.In Florida, Rep. Daniel Webster (R) distributed a sort of blacklist of local activists that aimed to tear down those who might criticize him at his town hall meetings. The tone of the list was almost comically paranoid, with photos next to big warnings that activists once worked for the “Barak [sic] Obama Presidential Campaign” in 2008.

In Ohio, Rep. Steve Chabot (R) ordered police on scene at one of his August town halls to confiscate the video cameras of progressives in attendance, a step up from his overall ban on constituent cameras in his meetings that he’s had in place “since at least June,” according the the Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel.

Back when things were really hot for Democrats during the health care debate, some Democrats tried this kind of thing. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) once publicly overruled his staff when they tried to keep news cameras out of one of his town halls in August, 2009. And as the Los Angeles Times reports, at least one prominent Democrat is limiting her exposure to crowds this August:

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.

Pelosi’s office emailed Monday to say the Democratic leader did hold a town hall with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) in an Oakland, CA church. Her office notes Peolsi has “had four other public events so far this break and has public events in three states this week.”

The easiest way to avoid town hall criticism is, of course, not to have a town hall at all. And that’s exactly what Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) — who is a prime target for progressive and Democratic protesters — has done. Instead of public, open meetings, Ryan opted for visits with civic groups that charged the public admission to attend.

Gabriela Schneider, communications director for the Sunlight Foundation — a non-partisan group focused on government transparency — says the decision by members of Congress to flee their critics this August is bad for democracy.

“What’s so dangerous that they have to ban cameras?” she said. “The members of Congress are reneging now on their responsibility to hear from their constituents. That’s why they go home.”

Schneider called the push to corral critics and deny them access to their members of Congress “something new” and “a disturbing trend.” She also suggested members of Congress could boost their declining approval ratings by facing their critics. That may seem counter-intuitive, but Schneider said Americans expect a dialogue with their politicians. When they don’t get it, they can turn on their leaders.

“They want access to members of Congress,” she said. “They don’t want just the big corporations to have access.”

This story was updated Monday morning at 10 AM Eastern to include the email from Pelosi’s office.

Get the day’s best political analysis, news and reporting from the TPM team delivered to your inbox every day with DayBreaker. Sign up here, it takes just a few seconds.

The TPM Journalism Fund: A New Way To Support TPM
We're launching the TPM Journalism Fund as an additional way for readers and members to support TPM. Every dollar contributed goes toward:
  • -Hiring More Journalists
  • -Providing free memberships to those who cannot afford them
  • -Supporting independent, non-corporate journalism
Are you experiencing financial hardship?
Apply for a free community-supported membership
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Senior Editor:
Special Projects Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front-End Developer:
Senior Designer: