The Town Hall Dog That Didn’t Bite

Scenes from Tea Party protests in August, 2009
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On their first recess break since passing historic health care reform legislation, members of Congress have not faced anything like the crowds and anger from anti-reform advocates they faced last summer, when guns, shouts and even fist fights became a part of more than a few town hall meetings. A review of local press coverage from the past week shows that the rage that met members on the weekend the House passed the health care bill has, for the most part, not followed them home.

Any number of factors could be responsible for the toned-down crowds over the past week. Conservative groups that organized protesters to pack town halls before the vote are largely staying out now that the legislative battle is lost for their side. Perhaps Democratic plans to mitigate the threat of protest at town halls have worked.

Either way, the town hall seemed to return to its roots last week — rather than a place for insults and misdemeanor assault charges, the meetings between constituents and their members are once again about relatively poor attendance and wonky Q&A sessions.

That’s not to say that the anti-reform vitriol has not played a part in the town hall process whatsoever. Tea party groups have targeted town halls in New Hampshire, and the anti-reform violence that marked the week after the bill was signed by President Obama have played a part in changing the plans of some members of congress who planned to hold meetings this week.

Threats of violence led, reportedly, to at least two Democratic members changing town hall schedule. In Ohio, Rep. Tim Ryan (D) canceled a meeting with his constituents 20 minutes before it was supposed to start March 30, citing “concerns about safety.” Ryan’s office told local reporters it planned to reschedule the meeting for this week.

In Colorado, Rep. Betsy Markey, Democrat who switched from a No to a Yes vote on reform’s final passage in the House, held a telephone town hall after receiving threats of violence from people angry at her health care vote. The conference call format certainly didn’t turn constituents away — according to local reports, about 8,000 called in from Markey’s Ft. Collins-area district. Reports from the meeting say that even though there was a lot of talk about the reform bill, little of it was of the “you’re turning us into a communist dictatorship” variety. The Ft. Collins Coloradoan reported that “the bulk of the questions focused on uncertainty about how the reform plan will play out, particularly in the area of cost control.”

That’s the kind of yawn-worthy wonkiness regular town hall attendees have come to expect. There are similar stories of actual debate about how the bill works from the town hall meetings of other Democrats whose votes, like Markey’s, are thought to be politically risky.

In Michigan, freshman Rep. Mark Schauer (D) had just 60 turn out to a town hall he held at a senior center in Lansing. Reports say that a dozen of them were upset with his yes vote on reform. He held another town hall a few days earlier and, as the Detroit Free Press reported, “neither event saw disruptive outbursts like town hall meetings held last year around the country.”

Not all the Democratic town halls have been quieter, however. In New Hampshire, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) — a lightning rod for conservatives before her yes vote of reform in part due to her own experiences being tossed out of town hall hosted President Bush in 2005 — faced hundreds of screaming anti-reformers at her town halls over the last week. That could be partially due to the fact that a tea party group in New Hampshire specifically targeted the meetings for protest, much as national anti-reform groups did last year. (Politico reports similar scenes at town halls for NH Rep. Paul Hodes (D), who’s running for Senate this year — a position that puts him in the sights of national health care reform opponents.)

There’s little evidence that other tea party groups are targeting town halls around the country this time around. At the same time, Democrats had talking points“>prepared for a battle over the health care bill during recess leaving them perhaps more organized than their opponents. That’s led to quieter, dare I suggest more boring town halls this week — the stuff of the C-Span junkie’s dreams, maybe, but probably not the place where you’re likely to get your finger bitten off.

There are places where you’re sure to find a firey town hall is alive and well. Wherever a Republican is holding a meeting with constituent, talk of armageddon is still likely to be a part of the agenda, some of it coming from the podium. Back home in Oklahoma this week, Sen. Tom Coburn (R) let his constituents know that there’s still a lot to be afraid of from the Democratic majorities in the congress after health care has passed.

“Could this experiment in freedom and liberty, entrepreneurship and exceptionalism come to an end?” Coburn told the crowd at a town hall in Cherokee last week, according to a report in the Alva Reveiw-Courier. “I think that’s the potentia;…If you look at history, whether you study the Roman Empire, the Athenian Empire or study any other republic, they all died. They died for, one common reason – their fiscal policies.”

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