Town hall format shouldn’t be easy
‘Summertime and the livin’ is easy,” wrote the novelist DuBose Heyward in the lyrics to a famous George Gershwin song.
He could have served in Congress, where members take the entire month of August off whether they’ve accomplished anything meaningful or not. They call it the “August recess.”
The “livin’ is easy” part may be interrupted – though we hope not rudely – next week when the three Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation face protests from two conservative groups that plan to picket the offices of Rep. Ann Kuster, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Cornerstone Action and Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire want the trio to hold town hall-style meetings where they have to field tough questions about their support of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Critics of the law say the three are avoiding their constituents.
All three Democrats have or are scheduled to appear and take questions in televised forums on WMUR-TV, but that’s no substitute for free-wheeling exchanges that voters in the state expect, said Ashley Pratte, executive director of Cornerstone.
There’s a fine line to be walked by our representatives when it comes to making themselves available to their constituents. New Hampshire has a long tradition of expecting citizen access to even its highest-ranking elected officials.
When Sen. Kelly Ayotte returned to the state this past spring after voting against a bill backed by gun-control groups, she infuriated some constituents by what her critics perceived as controlling the format of her town hall meetings too tightly. Attendees were required to put their question topics in writing ahead of time. Tensions were admittedly high and, to that degree, she deserves credit for holding the sessions at all. She answered some of the questions about the hot topic of the day, but the format drove what felt to some like a wedge between the senator and the people who came to see her.
The ensuing criticism showed that voters in the state frown on being “handled” by political operatives determined to stand between representatives and the people who elected them. To that end, fielding questions in a television studio is no substitute for meeting constituents face-to-face. It projects the feeling of being contrived. Better to hold such events in the local gym – where anyone can show up – and to go easy on the reins.
We think the town hall format works best when it is open and unscripted, but a “free-wheeling” format doesn’t give political opponents the right to be verbally abusive or hijack the proceedings, either, no matter how emotional the issue at hand.
Shaheen, Kuster and Shea-Porter should be out there defending their positions on the Affordable Care Act by holding such public forums often and with few restrictions. Ayotte, too, for that matter. (Her office says she’s held 23 town hall meetings since being seated.) Hand-picking which topics to address or placing a lot of restrictions on format strikes us as counter to the state’s tradition of access and the implicit bargain we make with those we elect: We’ll give you the job, but hold you accountable, too.
A better town hall format, we think, is to collect the questions in a hat and pull them at random. Better yet, put names in a hat and let the lucky winners step to the microphone and ask an unscreened question. Enlist a respected local resident like the town or school district moderator to be in charge of the hat, so the process is perceived to be on the up-and-up.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it has the benefits of being fair and, well, easy.
Unless you’re on the receiving end of some of those questions.