When given the opportunity to meet face-to-face with constituents during last week’s congressional recess, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, phoned it in. Literally.
Rather than hold a traditional town hall meeting that offers the public a chance to discuss issues in person, Herrera Beutler held a conference call to take questions. Given the contentious and unproductive meetings held by many representatives across the country, there is some justification for this approach. But Herrera Beutler’s duty to face the people she represents must outweigh the possible discomfort of a town hall. She should dial up the courage to meet with constituents, something she has largely avoided during her six-plus years in office.
Last week, more than 100 protesters gathered outside Herrera Beutler’s Vancouver office, with many carrying signs asking, “Where’s Jaime?” Then, on Tuesday, a robo-call alerted constituents to the phone town hall, instructing them to stay on the line in order to participate. Herrera Beutler’s office reported that about 30,000 people listened in, with 8,500 of them staying on through the one-hour meeting.
Such an approach can reach more people than an in-person event, yet there are drawbacks. Questions are screened; citizens cannot read the representatives’ body language; and the personal touch that is an important part of governance is lacking. In the end, constituents are left with the sense that their representative is detached and unresponsive.
Herrera Beutler is not the only elected official to question the efficacy of in-person town halls. Her predecessor, Brian Baird, a Democrat, complained in 2009 that conservative activists were using “brownshirt tactics” to disrupt local events, particularly a contentious town hall at the Clark County Fairgrounds; and last week, several Republican representatives had town halls disrupted by unruly participants. Participants in town-hall meetings must recognize that such meetings call for dignity, and that treating somebody with respect is how you earn respect in return.
There is some irony in the experiences of Baird and Herrera Beutler. Baird faced crowds opposed to the health care overhaul that resulted in the Affordable Care Act; Herrera Beutler and other Republicans now are facing audiences concerned about threats to repeal that legislation and leave millions of people without access to health insurance.
While they are different sides of the same issue, the vitriol is similar, and it is important to point out that even the loudest of protesters do not necessarily represent the majority of constituents. Despite being subject to much criticism, Herrera Beutler was re-elected three months ago with 62 percent of the vote.
Popularity, however, does not mitigate her obligation to answer difficult questions, to meet with constituents, and to explain her positions to both her supporters and those who voted for her opponent. At a time when political activism and political angst are at near-record levels, elected officials must be cognizant of the fact that they are working for the people. If they had a regular job and the boss requested a meeting, phoning it in in order to avoid a face-to-face confrontation would not be acceptable.
Nor is it acceptable for Herrera Beutler to systematically avoid her constituents. Last month, she held a small town hall meeting to discuss the Affordable Care Act, but she largely has been inaccessible for the people of the 3rd Congressional District. Those people deserve better. Many jobs can effectively be performed through telecommuting, but being a member of Congress is not one of them.