In 2009, tea party activists overwhelmed town halls around the country, creating angry confrontations over health-care legislation that dominated the news. A Pew poll showed that nearly eight in ten Americans were paying either "a lot" (49 percent) or "a little" attention (29 percent) to the rowdy town halls.
Polling has yet to be done on this summer’s contentious meetings, but they have not gotten nearly the same media coverage. It’s unlikely that voters are paying as much attention. Local news coverage suggests divided crowds with a variety of concerns.
The only major story that came out of the summer was how many members didn’t hold town halls — focusing on Republicans.
Is that storyline accurate? Sort of. According to the nonpartisan group “No Labels,” 60 percent of House members held no town halls in the month of August. While some lawmakers have disputed that report, according to a Knowlegis database, about 500 town hall meetings were held this summer , 159 fewer than in 2009.
Only 153 of the 535 members of Congress held town halls in summer 2011, according to Knowlegis. But that’s just a slight decrease from the 164 who held them in 2009, and a big increase from the 113 who held town hall events in 2007. So the congressmen who did hold town halls are holding less of them this time around.
Many lawmakers have held events on specific subjects open to constituents but not labeled those gatherings “town halls.” While anyone can ask any question at such an event, designating an event as a veterans’ issues meeting is a to keep the meeting focused on a certain topic and away from other troublesome ones.
But liberals protested outside of events if they couldn’t get in and ask questions, demanding that Congress focus its attention on the economy and issue legislation focused on jobs.
“I think its been a good month,” said Michael Uehlein, spokesperson for the American Dream Movement, a liberal coalition hoping to rival the tea party. “There were hundreds of protests across the country, more than one hundred lawmakers hearing directly from their constituents about jobs, which is what needs to be talked about.”
Reps. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.), and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) all held paid events only. Protesters pressured Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) into holding a free town hall in Duluth, Minnesota.* Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) was caught distributing a “watch list” of local Democratic activists. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) got flack for seizing the cameras of two Democratic activists.
Liberal activists who have gotten into town halls have been less covert than their tea party predecessors. In some cases, protesters have worn matching t-shirts to town halls. Democrats have promoted town hall questioning under the banner of ”Accountability August.” The result: headlines like this one from the district of Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.): “Organized opposition dominates Bass town hall.”
Tea partiers also had the advantage of surprise in 2009. Lawmakers are now prepared for contentious questions — and their supporters are prepared to defend their policies.
Still, unlike 2009, there’s more than one perspective out there. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said recently that he got two messages out of the month’s town halls — “work together” and “don’t cut my Social Security and Medicare.” That’s not bad for Democrats, even if it doesn’t get as much press.
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* An earlier version of this story mistakenly suggested that all of these lawmakers were pressured into holding free town halls.