Proof of residency. Photo ID. Preregister.
For some members of Congress, the unusually strict requirements they've put in place for who can attend their town halls sound more like a trip to the DMV than an invitation to practice democracy. And those are the few lawmakers who have agreed to hold town halls at all while on break from Congress this past week.
The seem to be a direct response to the intense activism springing up across the nation right now, driven mostly — but not completely — by the left of the political spectrum. It's creating some tense moments for Republicans who decide to hold town halls and no-win situations for Republicans who don't.
Caught up in the middle are Americans who feel left out of having their say in this remarkable moment in U.S. politics — but can't.
Here's a sampling of the rules town hall attendees are being asked to follow:
Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa): “Please note that entry will be reserved to constituents of Iowa's 1st District. To verify residency, please RSVP here and bring a photo ID to the town hall. RSVP and photo ID will be required for entry. Information provided during registration must match address on photo ID. … No backpacks, signs, banners, or artificial noisemakers will be allowed into the event.”
Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.): “The one-hour event will not be a traditional town hall meeting open to any member of the public who wants to stop by. Instead, the television stations will distribute about 100 tickets through an online lottery.” (His office says the requirements were put in place by the TV station hosting the event.)
Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.): “You must present a valid state issued I.D. that matches your registration information in order to gain entry to the event. No cheering, clapping, jeering, or signs are allowed at the event. Civil dialogue only, please.”
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.): She held a town hall in February that was only open to prescreened residents of the town she was in, Fairview, who had reserved seats in advance. At one point, the town's mayor took the event off the city's website because, the mayor told CNN, officials wanted it to be a “low key” “community meeting.”
The lawmakers' rationale behind all the new rules: Town halls are being exploited by liberal advocacy groups with national motives. So, it makes sense to close them down to people who actually belong to the district.
Garrett's 200-ish-person town hall at a church outside Roanoke the other night, for example, was lined with police officers who are investigating “credible” threats to his family.
I asked Rep Garrett about heavy security presence here. He said he had received specific threats against his life, his wife and even his dog
— MaryAlice Parks (@maryaliceparks) May 10, 2017
Other lawmakers have taken note.
“I will not risk public safety to entertain individuals that have no desire to respectfully discuss important issues,” Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Tex.) told a Dallas Morning News watchdog columnist this week about why he's not holding a town hall nor advertising his office location. “The only complaints received are from members of the obstructionist group — Indivisible.”
There's no rule that lawmakers have to hold town halls when they're back in their districts. But for those who do, putting limits on who can attend kind of flies in the face of having one in the first place, said Norm Ornstein, a congressional ethics expert: “Even when you had the conservative outrage over Obamacare, I don't recall anyone trying to preselect attendance. The unwillingness to take criticism or any heat from a legislative decision is really unusual.”
A staffer for a Republican representing a solid GOP district, who agreed to speak candidly on condition of anonymity, said anything that's labeled a “town hall” should generally be pretty open to whomever wants to come.
The liberal advocacy group on the receiving end of most of the finger pointing from Republicans, Indivisible, denies orchestrating any protests.
The group, set up by former congressional staffers after Trump's win, says it provides tools to help people get the attention of their lawmakers — how to ask for a town hall, what questions to ask, how to how to stage “die ins” and other attention-grabbing protests.
“Aside from that, they are out there talking about the things that matter to them and we're not directing to anyone.” said Angel Padilla with Indivisible.
Stacy Nelson, who lives in the Raleigh, N.C., area, is one of those self-organizing people frustrated by the lack of access to her member of Congress. She and a group of seven others met on Facebook because they had a mutual interest in asking Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) what he can do to force President Trump to release his tax returns. She said her group is a mix of Democrats and Republicans who live in the district who just want to talk with their congressman: “We have a high school social studies teacher, a retired pastor, a small-business owner …”
After three months of negotiating, they finally got a meeting with Holding on Wednesday. “We have full-time jobs,” Nelson said a day before the meeting. “None of us are paid protesters, we're just concerned. We are not going to be confrontational, we just want him to listen. There's never been an opportunity.”
Those who do brave the town hall format have come out of it bruised. Rep. Tom MacArthur, the moderate Republican who pretty much single-handedly revived the House's controversial health-care bill, visited a liberal enclave in his swing New Jersey district Wednesday night and spent five hours defending himself to 200 irate constituents.
“I hear people calling me an idiot. I hear people shouting curse words,” an exasperated MacArthur finally said. “I wonder, I really wonder how any of you would perform in Congress with that attitude.”
Blum, a conservative lawmaker representing a swingy Iowa district, made national headlines earlier this week for walking out of a TV interview when pressed on why he's screening his attendees.
And Blackburn's “low key" community meeting in a Tennessee town of 8,000 was filled with 130 attendees, with more protesters outside. Blackburn later claimed just one-third of the attendees were from her district but she could provide no evidence, leading city officials to publicly contradict her in local media.
Those are the stories of lawmakers who hold town halls at all. Left-leaning Town Hall Project has been tracking how many of the 217 House Republicans who voted for the House health-care bill held a town hall this week during a break in Congress. Their count: 16.
And more than a dozen people from across the country reached out to The Fix to share their frustration that their lawmaker won't even meet with them.
— Karen Deering (@KarenEDeering) May 11, 2017
— Libby Jones (@libbyjones715) May 10, 2017
“At this point I’m not even sure it’s a real person who just voted against me and my family,” said Candace Bonds, who said she's been calling the office every other day of her representative, Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), to better understand how his vote for the House's health-care bill will affect her husband's diabetes treatment.
Democratic lawmakers — and some hopeful challengers — are taking advantage of Republicans' absence, traveling to neighboring Republican districts to hold their own town halls. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) called The Post on his way back from a town hall in House Speaker Paul D. Ryan's (R-Wis.) district Friday afternoon. Pocan said about 250-300 people showed up to vent their frustrations on everything from health care to the Trump-Russia drama.
"He is refusing to do one, so I figured someone should show up," Pocan said.
It's somewhat paradoxical, said Padilla of Indivisible, but he thinks lawmakers are closing off town halls precisely because they are hearing from their constituents.
“We really think that's proof that their advocacy is working and that it's changing behavior,” Padilla said. “At the end of the day, it's going to change the way they vote in Congress.”