Thursday, August 6, 2009

Town Meetings

During the twenty years I spent in Congress, I always found town meetings to be a very useful way to communicate with constituents and to hear their concerns. Some of those meetings were difficult. People showed up who did not agree with me and we had an exchange over our differences. Sometimes the press reports focused on some small controversy in the meeting rather than the big issues that were discussed. Sometimes I ended up refereeing some local battle that had no Federal involvement, but was important enough for citizens to use my town meeting as a forum.

The way I conducted those sessions was as an open discussion. I went with no agenda. I did not use the meeting to talk about the issues important to me. My intent was to listen to what was on the minds of my constituents. So I began each meeting by saying I would make no speech but rather was throwing the ball to them. Any question or comment they wanted to make was a legitimate topic. And that open discussion would go on for an hour and a half.

Clearly there are Members of Congress who do not wish to engage in that kind of dialogue. The complaints of Democrats who have found less than friendly audiences back home on August recess are fascinating. They want to use the town meetings to regurgitate the canned information on health care reform and cap and trade programs provided them by their leadership. What they are finding is informed citizens who are not interested in canned propaganda, but rather are more interested in getting answers to serious questions. And when the response they get from their Congressman or Congresswoman is unresponsive, they become upset.

So how has the Democratic Party establishment reacted to the challenge to Obama policies that Democratic Representatives are finding back home? They are claiming that the questions and the anger are not real. It's all a setup, they say. The Republicans and right wing extremists are behind it. Senator Barbara Boxer of California was even quoted as saying that these concerned constituents are a part of a plot to destroy the President. In fact, the White House, itself, has gone so far as to try to stifle free speech by asking their supporters to report citizens who are spreading "disinformation."

The Democratic charges come at a time where the President is holding town meetings, himself, trying to win support for his health care proposal. The difference is that the President's town hall sessions consist of carefully screened participants and the questions asked are akin to the canned propaganda that the Congressmen want to use in their districts. No wonder the Democrats believe that everyone agrees with them because most of the people they let into the halls to speak with the President do agree with them. They wouldn't be there if they didn't.

But polling data says something quite different. The country is very much divided on the questions of health care and energy policies. And, if anything, the polls indicate that a majority of Americans, in some cases a significant majority of Americans, disagree with the President and the Democrats on Capitol Hill. It is those majorities that are showing up at congressional town meetings and making their voices heard.

Instead of comparing concerned Americans to "mob rule" or trying to stifle free speech, the Democrats should listen. Listening instead of talking is hard for Members of Congress, but it is essential if you want to hear the real America speaking.

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