Why town halls are important
Noah Karvelis in The Progressive Times recently discussed the importance of town halls:
In the current political landscape of the United States, it has become more important than ever to stand up to hold those in power accountable. The town hall-style meeting has long been one of the most effective ways of accomplishing exactly this.
WV's 1st Congressional District representative, David McKinley, who no longer holds town hall meetings, has argued that he does get together with his constituents in other ways: he holds telephone conferences and group meetings. The Washington Post, in a recent article about town halls, questioned the effectiveness of some of these alternatives:
If representatives are meeting with constituents in other ways, why does it matter if members of Congress don’t host town halls?
Despite the at-times unpleasant interactions that can happen at larger, live events, Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said public town halls are a critical component of a democratic system based on accountability. Lawmakers can't achieve the same level of communication through mass conference calls, known as “tele-town halls,” or Facebook Live events, he said.
“Nothing comes close to seeing people in person and hearing their concerns firsthand,” he said.
For me, the beauty of the town hall is that you get comments and questions from across the political spectrum. Just as important, the congressman's response is witnessed by other attendees and hopefully local media who create a record of what the politician said.
Representative David McKinley's divide and conquer strategy
Back in April, a local Ohio Valley activist group, Marchers Ohio Valley Empowered (MOVE), pressured McKinley to hold a town hall. My understanding is that McKinley said "no" because of security fears. (At least he's been consistently dishonest -- see two posts down.) He did, however, agree to meet with a small contingent from the group. Local media were not present at the meeting.
Last Thursday, a similar McKinley event took place in Tucker County as eleven local members of WV Highlands Indivisible met with the congressman. It again appears that local media were not present although the local newspaper, the Parsons Advocate, did publish what looks to be the notes of one of the participants.
(I was not present at either event and so what follows is conjecture on my part.) My hunch is that the congressman probably did some of the following at one or both events:
He steered the discussion in directions that favored his point of view or topics that he wanted to discuss. Having the participants positioned around a table, as opposed to sitting in an assembly hall, is certainly more conducive to McKinley being a discussion leader rather than being at the mercy of a commenter who could ask or state anything that was on his/her mind.
He established a conciliatory rather than confrontational tone. Like the previous point, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It might be, however, if participants softened or toned-down their responses because being direct was seen as practicing bad manners in that particular situation.
He appeared to be listening.
He commented in ways that suggested that he understood and sometimes even agreed with the participants' point of view. For example, the Tucker County newspaper story contains the following sentence about Medicaid:
On a positive note, Congressman McKinley did say that “Medicaid is sacred” and that he thought it “would be foolish to take away health care.”
Here is NBC's News on the healthcare bill passed by the House this spring. McKinley voted "yes" on the bill:
The House bill would gradually do away with the expansion, but would go much further than simply rolling back Obamacare's changes. It would also transform Medicaid from a program that provides guaranteed matching funds to states to one that provides a fixed per-capita amount for every recipient or a block grant to cover total spending. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated these changes will leave 14 million fewer people covered by the program after a decade.
Despite what McKinley told the group, taking "away health care" is exactly what he voted for and it would appear that the congressman got a pass on this one.
Just a thought - perhaps progressive groups should quit playing McKinley's game
We all want to hold politicians accountable but with McKinley's use of small groups, there is no accountability because there is not a media record or other-sided witnesses to react or document what was said. McKinley can say to last Thursday's group that Medicaid is "sacred" and then later tell a conservative group how he wants to "lower taxes by cutting wasteful government programs." Both groups will walk away feeling like he has them covered. If both groups were attending a much larger town hall, however, it wouldn't be so easy -- somebody would call him out.
I know some of the people who participated in the Wheeling meeting and I do not question their commitment to progressive politics. However, I think future efforts need to be focused only on a town hall rather than a small group meeting which McKinley can use to his advantage. I realize that both progressive groups originally pushed for a town hall and my hunch is that the groups went along with McKinley's plan because they would get a chance to express their point of view and a meeting, any meeting, was probably "better than nothing." Okay, the congressman did have to listen to the opinions of some of his constituents which is a good thing but my hunch is that he already knew what those points of view were from the names of the groups. Unfortunately, with so few in attendance, no media presence and no one video recording what he said, McKinley could say whatever to whomever with few repercussions. This type of meeting clearly works to McKinley's advantage and progressive groups should simply quit playing along.
The final irony in all of this is that McKinley got credit for holding a town hall in Tucker County. Here is the headline for the Parsons Advocate article:
Local Volunteers Host Town Hall Meeting with Congressman McKinley
This was a closed, limited-audience event; it was not a town hall. The newspaper mislabeled the event but how many readers just read the headline and concluded that McKinley was indeed serving his constituents? This wasn't the group's fault but that didn't lessen the incorrect impression that was probably left with a lot of Advocate readers.