The telephone town hall, a forum that members of Congress insist offers them an opportunity to reach out to more constituents than through traditional town halls, is coming under increasing scrutiny from critics who insist that the events are largely rigged and designed to shield skittish lawmakers from facing hostile questioning.
While the tele-town hall isn’t exactly a new communications tool, it’s hard not to notice the sudden proliferation of these events at a time when members have struggled to control raucous crowds and deal with the presence of unfriendly, camera-wielding attendees who are eager to post unflattering videos on the Internet.
Lawmakers insist the tele-town halls enable them to reach out to far more constituents at any one time than an in-person event would. Conservative activists, however, contend that elected officials don’t want to face the music and prefer a more controlled environment where they can cherry-pick questions and dodge the opposition.
In North Carolina, FreedomWorks organizer Joyce Krawiec said that members of her group who called in to some House members’ conference calls reported back that they were unable to ask a question.
In North Dakota, conservative local radio host and blogger Rob Port described a similar experience when he phoned in to Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy’s conference call, despite calling in early to get in line to ask a question. The operator, he said, asked whether he supported or opposed President Barack Obama’s health care plan. When Port said he was undecided — an attempt to ensure that he got to ask a question — he was put on hold for what seemed to him to be an interminable period.
After the first round of questions included a local Service Employees International Union representative, followed by another pro-Obama group’s representative, Port eventually hung up.
It’s an experience that’s been reported across the country over the past two months. Waco, Texas-area tea party organizer Toby Marie Walker and members of her group signed up for an Aug. 20 teleconference with Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards, but some say they never received a call at the appointed time. A few others in the group got on the call but weren’t chosen to ask a question.
“They know me because I call them every day,” Walker said. “He knows who we are, so I guess we didn’t expect to ask any questions.”
Asked for comment about the complaints, a spokesman for Edwards offered this statement.
“Our telephone town hall meeting on health care dialed nearly 200,000 homes in all 12 District 17 counties, and nearly 20,000 constituents participated. Our public town halls in Bryan, Waco and Cleburne were well attended by over 3,000 people. The congressman also participated in health care forums with constituents via webcast and radio call-in programs,” said Josh Taylor. “While some would play politics with the issue of health care, Congressman Edwards believes the issue is too important to our families and country to be influenced by partisan politics.”
Congressional offices and technology experts contacted by POLITICO admit that telephone conference calls are often orchestrated to some degree, but they say they aren’t screening for softballs. Rather, the explanation is that attempts are made to shield lawmakers from unruly behavior.
By pre-screening questions through congressional staffers and using robocalls to reach a random sampling of voters, they note, notorious troublemakers can be kept off the line and a fair balance of opinions heard.
Several congressional offices say that they select questions based on topic, rather than in the order they’re received, to allow lawmakers to address a wide variety of topics and eliminate repeat questions.
When POLITICO listened to 10 recent telephone town halls across the country, the questions posed to lawmakers from both parties tended to be sympathetic or, in some cases, almost fawning.
The rules the offices applied to the calls varied widely. Some members tightly controlled their circumstances by pre-screening caller questions or robocalling names off voter registration lists. In some cases random samplings of registered voters were called, and in others target audiences such as senior citizens were called. Some lawmakers even kept the times and dates of the calls largely under wraps until the day before, hoping to deter protesters.
Others took a more laissez-faire approach, widely publicizing their conference calls, asking only for names of those who wanted to ask questions or simply posting constituent sign-up sheets on their website.
Calls hosted in early September by liberal Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of California and Blue Dog Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas featured questioners who were mostly in line with each lawmaker’s health care stance.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), during an early September tele-town hall, chose questions from a list of pre-screened callers on his computer, marked with names, locations and question topics.
Using a technology company called iConstituent, the senator’s office had randomly robocalled about 50,000 people in the Las Vegas area, plucked from a list of registered voters from the secretary of state’s office. Most residents of the Democratic-leaning area had no forewarning that they would be called.
Ensign ended up mostly preaching to the choir.
“I don’t think I’m alone when I say we trust you and we are fighting for you,” purred one caller.
“Why don’t we look more at saving money like you suggest, rather than trying to put our grandchildren in debt?” another asked.
“What can I do to help you to get Sen. Harry Reid out of office?” asked a caller named Frank.
At one point, Ensign seemed almost flustered by the lack of opposition.
“I keep asking if there’s another question on here for the government plan,” Ensign said apologetically. “If you’re for the government plan, please hit *3 and we’ll try to put you at the top [of the list].”
Constituents calling into Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s teleconference were also filtered, according to his office, to ensure that a wide range of topics was addressed. His tele-town hall had a good mix of dissenters and supporters.
Reid’s office said it was the most effective way to maintain a working conversation with constituents, even if all topics couldn’t be addressed.
“The reality is, we had 10,000 people on the line. We wouldn’t have reached 10,000 people if we’d held five town halls,” said Reid spokesman Jon Summers.
Fireside21, a company that provides tele-town-hall technology to House members, encourages lawmakers to screen callers, use robocalling methods to target key audiences and use the mute button if callers start running out the clock.
“Screening eliminates confusion,” said Fireside21 Chief Executive Officer Ken Ward. “In a situation when there are callers who go beyond what they should in matters of language and decorum, there’s the ability to mute that person. I don’t think anyone is trying to censor — just maintain the level of appropriateness for the conversation.”
But the line between appropriateness and annoyance can get blurry.
Rene Guerra, a caller on a teleconference by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), said he was cut off midsentence when he asked the congresswoman why she hadn’t held town halls in person.
“She started talking over me; I was muted,” said Guerra, a health care reform opponent who speaks with a thick foreign accent. “I wasn’t finished putting my arguments behind my question when she started talking over me. It was just so bad.”
Eshoo’s office said callers were kept on tight question time limits and said it was “possible” that someone could have been cut off.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) asked questioners only for their names and locations, leaving each question a surprise. He rarely, if ever, muted a rambling caller during the call, which lasted more than an hour.
Even in a heavily Republican district, Jordan took multiple callers upset about his decision to oppose the Democrats’ health care plan.
“We think that people should have opportunity to yell at the congressman if they don’t like what he’s doing,” said Jordan’s chief of staff, Ray Yonkura, who helped with the calls.
The downside: The congressman spent a precious three minutes of one call arguing with a senior citizen over language in the bill.
“The bill does not get rid of private insurance,” one caller stated.
“It most certainly does. Page 16 of the bill ...” Jordan replied.
“I did not read it that way, and I read the bill and I don’t believe it says that,” she responded.