Virtual Town Halls
Why phone or Internet "meetings" with constituents are no substitute for the real thing.


 As voters start talking back — first with the tea parties, now with protests against Democratic health-care proposals — members of Congress are showing more interest in “virtual town halls.” By “meeting” constituents via phone or Internet, lawmakers can exercise more control and thus avoid the unpleasantness that can accompany face-to-face meetings.

In the online version, constituents can submit questions electronically. Members reply by text, audio, or video. In a telephone town hall, the lawmaker sends out robo-calls to invite constituent participation. People can then dial a toll-free number to listen, and they may enter a PIN if they want to ask a question.

There are legitimate reasons for communicating in such ways. One could argue that deliberation hardly benefits from the hooting and hollering that can take place in live meetings. And virtual meetings allow members of Congress to reach more people, especially those who would have difficulty getting to a meeting site.

Nevertheless, it would be a shame if legislators replaced live town-hall meetings with technology altogether. Between election campaigns, these in-person forums provide just about the only way that voters can get a real sense of what their representatives are made of. Nearly everything else they see or hear about them is the product of artifice.

An ordinary citizen might reason that the best way to judge lawmakers is to look at the bills they write. But they do not actually write the bills. Staffers do. (And as recent events have reminded us, they do not always even read the bills.) Staffers also draft the lawmakers’ speeches, press releases, articles, and letters to constituents. They may even write the members’ “personal” blog posts. (One might say this seems like cheating by tweeting.)

Voters seldom see their representatives in unscripted settings in which they have to think on their feet. In most public appearances, they speak from staff-written talking points. Unlike senators, most members of the House are not regulars on the network interview programs. Local or regional reporters may sometimes subject them to a grilling, but thanks to massive cutbacks in the news industry, this is becoming less and less common.

Even floor debate is often not “debate” in the usual sense of the term — that is, a genuine exchange of views. Typically, members will get up, read their lines and then leave the chamber without listening to what their colleagues are saying. In the 1990s, the House did briefly experiment with informal Oxford-style debates in which members could test each others’ mettle. During one such debate, Rep. Bill Thomas (R., Calif.) pressed Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) to explain President Clinton’s health-care plan. What would happen, he asked, if employees failed to pay their share of the required fees? Sputtering non sequiturs about unemployment, Rep. DeLauro was obviously at a loss for an answer. Finally Thomas skewered her: “I appreciate your knowledge of the bill you are defending.”

Perhaps DeLauro’s colleagues feared that they could someday be in her shoes; in any case, the House quickly abandoned the experiment. Currently, members are probably more afraid of such a cross-examination in a town-hall meeting than they are of disruptive protests. It can be pretty humiliating if a knowledgeable questioner nails you in a public exchange.

From the politician’s perspective, that’s the beauty of virtual town halls. Staffers can screen the calls and messages. If a tough question does get through, the staffers can supply their boss with facts, figures, and snappy comebacks. (When the virtual town hall employs video instead of text, the aides need only stay out of camera range in order to preserve the illusion that the member is performing without assistance.) With all this help, even the laziest pols can look like überwonks. Call them “virtual members.”

Obviously, the congressional workload requires lawmakers to delegate. But it’s reasonable for voters to expect them to know their stuff, especially on health care and other issues that affect people directly. In an old-fashioned town hall, the member’s body language and off-the-cuff answers help voters to tell whether he or she meets this standard.

Virtual town halls are a lot like Oz: The members are the little men and women behind the curtain. And they don’t even need a heart, a brain, or courage.

– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.


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