Congress is about to go into its first week-long recess since Trump’s inauguration. Normally, this is a time for lawmakers to return to their district and meet with constituents.
This year, most Republicans are opting out.
According to data gathered by Legistorm and reported by VICE, there are only about 90 in-person town halls scheduled this year for the about 290 Republicans serving in Congress (which is a bit in flux thanks to Trump’s cabinet appointments). That number also includes multiples from certain congresspeople — 35 of the scheduled in-person events, for example, are for Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R), according to VICE.
By contrast, in the first two months of 2015 Republicans held 222 in-person events.
Since Trump’s inauguration, direct civic participation has skyrocketed, particularly from those concerned about Trump’s legislative agenda. Congressional switchboards have been overloaded with calls, leaving many constituents frustrated with their inability to reach their representatives.
Grassroots groups are targeting local offices, visiting congressional staff and requesting dates for town halls from absent representatives.
The Republicans who have attended town halls since the presidential election have been faced by mobilized, prepared constituents ready to engineer viral moments and capture the national spotlight.
At a town hall in Utah on February 9th, for example, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) faced a packed auditorium with hundreds more people waiting outside for fire safety reasons. Clips of the town hall — including constituents chanting “Do your job!” — went viral online.
— Kyung Lah (@KyungLahCNN) February 10, 2017
Republicans, however, are largely dismissing the protesters — and in some cases alleging that they are paid, professional activists rather than actual constituents. At a press conference on Thursday, President Donald Trump said the protesters “are not the Republican people that our representatives represent.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer previously told reporters that it was a “very paid, astroturf-like” movement.
In fact, many of the people showing up are directly participating in democracy (outside of election season) for the first time. They’re organizing locally using online tools like the Indivisible Guide, which was compiled by former congressional staffers to guide people in how best to engage with their congresspeople. And they’re relying on online tools like Town Hall Project, which alerts constituents to upcoming local meetings.
The Indivisible Guide stresses foremost that action must be local: lawmakers don’t want to hear from people who aren’t their constituents. In a recent webinar ahead of next weeks town halls, its founders gave additional advice about how to be a savvy attendee — come prepared with a specific question or request, tell personal, authentic stories, and get it on video.
“If there’s no recording, if there’s no pictures, if there’s nothing in the press, then it’s almost like it didn’t happen from the perspective of everybody who wasn’t there at the time,” Matt Traldi, one of the five co-founders of Indivisible, said during a recent Organizing for Action webinar.
Faced with the potential for angry crowds and embarrassing moments, however, many Republicans are choosing to hide — or opting instead for tele-town halls and Facebook live events, which allow them to have more control over the event and less of an opportunity for negative news coverage.
Rep. Peter Roskam (IL), for example — who recently left a closed-door meeting through the back door to avoid the hundreds of protesters who showed up — told a radio program on Sunday that he didn’t find in-person town-halls “productive.”
“Town hall meetings tend to be platforms for people to shout at one another and get angry at one another and leave more upset and disappointed and bent out of shape than when people came.” Roskam said in an interview on WGN 720-AM. “And the proof of that is just look at the national news.”
Roskam held a tele-town hall Monday night instead.
In New York, Rep. Chris Collins told local media that he wouldn’t be holding a town hall because “what you get are demonstrators who come and shout you down and heckle you…they are not what you would hope they would be.”
The Town Hall Project database lists just 19 Republicans holding upcoming town halls, although that number may be low since the list is crowdsourced.
In many districts, this lack of access has constituents frustrated and turning to creative means to prod their congresspeople. In New York, for example, one of Collins’ constituents crowdsourced funds for highway billboards reading “Where’s Chris Collins? WNY would like a word…host a town hall meeting, Mr. Collins.”
In New Jersey, constituents of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R) rented out four spaces for a town hall during the recess after the Congressman’s staff cited planning difficulties. In California, constituents of Rep. Darrell Issa (R) crowdsourced funds for a venue and took out a full-page ad inviting him to attend a town hall on healthcare on February 21st. They plan to go even if he doesn’t.
In New York, Rep. Lee Zeldin’s constituents have taken a similar approach: they organized a “Where’s Lee Zeldin?” town hall to be held with an empty chair representing their absent representative. Due to overwhelming interest, the event had to be pushed back a week and moved to a different venue. Zeldin, meanwhile, preemptively cancelled an event scheduled for April after reports came out that local organizations planned to hold a rally there.
And in Illinois, a woman created four cardboard cutouts of her ‘missing’ representative — Rodney Davis (R) — and made a Facebook page devoted to his adventures in his district.
“Where is Rodney? He sure is not appearing in our Congressional 13th area,” reads a recent post on the page.