6 Months Into Trump Term, How Accessible Are Ga. Congress Members? | WABE 90.1 FM

6 Months Into Trump Term, How Accessible Are Ga. Congress Members?

Jul 24, 2017

The six months of Donald Trump’s presidency have been marked by an explosion of political action by many unhappy with him and his administration’s policies. 

That has included loud demands by constituents who want to meet with elected officials and frustration when members of Congress seem out of reach.

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Caroline Stover is one of a wave of progressive Georgia activists awakened by the election of President Trump.

“I was signing petitions. I was clicking on a lot of links. I was having back and forth conversations on Facebook,” she said. Among those links were encouragements from civic advocacy organizations to meet with her senators.

“And I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I would love to talk to my senator right now,” Stover said. She said she couldn’t have named them at the time, but found U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s Atlanta office was the closest to her home.

So Stover set up an event a few days after Trump’s inauguration. About 150 people showed up outside Perdue’s Atlanta office. A small group actually met with his staff.

“We were told directly by his staff in subsequent meetings as well as that first meeting that Sen. Perdue has a very long waiting list of people who are waiting to meet with him. And the list is literally two years long,” Stover said.

She and a group who calls itself Resist Trump Tuesdays have been trying ever since to sit down with Perdue. Stover said the group’s main goal is to organize a town hall meeting.   

Perdue has never held an in-person town hall. He’s famously told reporters they aren’t his style.

“I do better than that. I’m meeting with individual constituents. I’m meeting with small groups or large groups. Look, a town hall is one way to do it. We have some teleconferences set up and scheduled, we’ll do that,” Perdue told reporters in April after speaking at a private lunch for business leaders.

Stover and a group of protesters were outside.

Across the state, other progressive groups had paid for a handful of billboards designed like a missing person's poster featuring Perdue’s face. “Have you seen him?” the message read.   

Perdue has held what his staff calls "constituent conference calls." In the meantime, Stover’s group, Resist Trump Tuesdays, has met with Perdue’s staff frequently.

She says they’re polite, they listen, and they take notes. But she’s asked, “What exactly happens to these notes that you’re taking? They said to us, “We give the notes to Sen. Perdue, and when he has time, late at night, he’ll look at them.”

Stover called the answer “unsatisfying.”

According to Town Hall Project, a progressive nonprofit that’s been keeping track, about half of Georgia’s 16 members of Congress have not held in-person town halls.

“About half of members of Congress don’t ever have a town hall meeting. They just don’t like it. It’s not their cup of tea. They interact with citizens in other ways,” said Bradford Fitch, president of the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan group that researches how to help Congress connect with citizens.

The foundation has run the numbers on how many town halls are happening nationally.

“I know that in the first three months of the year, there was not a drop-off in the in-person town hall meetings.”  

That’s compared to the two years prior.

Activists like Stover argue it’s one thing to compare the historic rate of meetings Congress members are having. It’s another thing entirely to respond to constituents who are actively requesting town halls right now.

And Fitch says his group’s research does show that, when they do happen, attendance at town halls is way up. This March, the average number of people showing up nationally was about 240 per meeting.

“Which is astonishingly high. The average number of people going to a town hall meeting is around 20 or 30. In the 50s, a good meeting for most members of the House of Representatives,” Fitch said.

The last time there were engagement numbers like this was during the rise of the tea party in 2009. Back then, too, headlines about angry constituents swamping members of Congress were everywhere -- the grassroots displeasure leveled then at Democrats rather than the GOP.

Fitch says his group doesn’t have numbers in yet for the last few months, but many Republican Congressional offices have reported cutting back on town halls during the May and July recesses.

“They may not set themselves up to be human pin cushions to get screamed at, and I don’t blame them for that. That’s not a dialogue,” he said, adding that the shooting attack at a Congressional baseball practice in June added to safety concerns for many.

Stover said her group is not requesting a town hall just to shout at Perdue.

“We’re not a violent crowd. We just want to hear from him, where he’s coming from, and why he’s making the decisions that affect our lives so closely,” Stover said.

“For my money, I think there’s room for angry protest,” said Michael Neblo a political science professor who studies town halls at Ohio State University. “That said, I do think a deliberate and coordinated strategy of disrupting all town halls for members of a given party is shutting down a really valuable kind of interaction.”

Neblo and his colleagues have been running experiments with members of Congress on how to make town halls better. With online “electronic town halls,” they’ve found constituents approve of the interactions at high rates when they know the event is being run by researchers.

Neblo thinks engaging a trusted third party, like a voter's league or respected journalist, to run town halls could recreate this.

“We think we’ve got evidence suggesting that by trying to control the message too much and insulate the member and prevent them from being embarrassed, they’re putting many of their constituents in a defensive posture,” Neblo said.

This goes for in-person town halls as well as telephone or online forums. Neblo notes that many in-person town halls ask constituents to write down questions, which can lead to the perception that the conversation is filtered.

U.S. House Rep. Doug Collins got an earful of similar criticism in May, during a telephone town hall he held.

"You can control the forum because you're in charge of it. And you can quote any kind of bogus facts you want to, you can overspeak over people who are trying to voice something, but you are not representing the people," said a caller identified as Ty.

Neblo said the third-party model can be a tough sell for staffers. It’s their job to try to protect their bosses from being embarrassed.

“The big irony is, we have pretty strong evidence, we think, that’s actually paradoxically less helpful,” Neblo said. “In general, [members of Congress] are very good at communicating, and if they can convince that they’re doing so honestly with them, the constituents give them enormous amounts of credit for that.”

Neblo also found improvements by filling town halls with a more politically random sample than usual.

“At standard town halls, it tends to be people who are very, very interested in politics and have very, very strong views. They either love their member of Congress, or they’re angry,” Neblo said.

He found the typical mix makes for a lot of shouting, less substance and less effort on the part of the Congress member to try to persuade. When it comes to explaining a contentious policy decision, members don’t have to convince the constituents who are already supportive and can’t usually move those who have come in angry.

Neblo recommends lowering the barrier to entry and more outreach to groups that aren’t already explicitly politically engaged.

He said congressional staff members might not be able to get as random a crowd as researchers do, but they can probably do better.

Bryn McCarthy contributed to this report