Members of Congress often remind constituents that the August recess is no vacation but, in fact, is packed with events in which they listen to the people who elected them. This summer, though, Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler is listening only to the people she chooses. The Republican rookie representative from Camas has scheduled no town hall meetings during the recess, and every flimsy explanation for this dereliction of duty only worsens constituents’ frustration.
Herrera Beutler has given a few speeches this month, conducted highly controlled “telephone town halls” and held tightly scripted, invitation-only listening sessions with a few hand-picked groups who were on their best behavior. But she has abandoned the town hall meeting, which she had entered several times earlier with fairly good results. But by dodging the public now, Herrera Beutler opens herself to accusations that she is too fearful, too impassive or too lazy to appear on a public stage before the real people.
Ryan Hart, a Herrera Beutler spokesman, said in a Columbian story that she “has been trying something different this month, which is to hold community meetings at coffee shops around the district.” First, these aren’t community meetings; they’re interruptions of people’s private coffee time. Some of those people might not even want to talk to a politician. Second, chances are great that, at these impromptu sessions, Herrera Beutler will not encounter any of the people who most want to speak with her. Some of them are her critics. She should deal with it; it comes with the job.
Herrera Beutler’s retreat from the public spotlight is especially troubling because she used that spotlight to get elected. And she has held several town hall meetings since then, including Feb. 3 in Battle Ground and May 17 at Skyview High School in Vancouver. But a lot has happened since then.
Why abdicate the politically profitable public perch when people want to ask about the contentious debate over extending the debt ceiling? Why vacate the limelight when people want answers about simmering issues such as health care, job creation, Social Security, Libya, Afghanistan, presidential candidates and President Obama’s performance?
If it’s because of personal security concerns, then why did the congresswoman have several town hall meetings earlier? Is her new reclusion due to worries that rowdy critics will use a town hall meeting to immortalize their performances in YouTube videos? Whatever the reason, Herrera Beutler should know that real leaders prove their worth by tackling adversities and exerting control, not by retreating.
Furthermore, it’s clear the congresswoman has not learned from her predecessor’s mistakes. Brian Baird used to be known as the king of town hall meetings. The Vancouver Democrat was widely cheered for holding 300 town hall meetings in 10 years, a remarkable record for a member of Congress. At many of them, he caught a lot of heat. In 2009, though, concerned about Tea Party disruptions at town halls across the country and citing his distaste for YouTube videos, Baird stopped holding town hall meetings.
Then he started again, and dug a deeper hole with outlandish explanations about his dueling decisions. It’s no stretch to believe that all of this had a lot to do with Baird’s decision to retire.
Herrera Beutler is digging that same hole. Her constituents deserve better.