After 2009 Turmoil, Town-Halls Are Scarce

Two years ago, protesters disrupted constituent forums in congressional districts across the nation. This August, lawmakers have shied away from holding them.

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Public approval of Congress has hit a historic low, and the economy has voters fuming. But town halls this August recess have been surprisingly quiet. Scattered protests and individual outbursts have arisen, but nothing like the massive tea party uprisings in August 2009.

One reason for the lack of truly disruptive town hall meetings: Activist groups on both sides of the political spectrum complain they just can't locate them.

Open town halls can be "really hard to find," said Kara Pally, a web developer at FreedomWorks, a conservative grassroots group. "People will call their representatives repeatedly, but don't see the information until the very last minute."

Meanwhile, MoveOn.org activists have found it so difficult to find town hall events this recess that many activists have scheduled private meetings with their representatives instead, said Justin Ruben, the progressive group's executive director.

"After 2009, most members of Congress stopped making themselves so available," Ruben said.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has come to believe that town hall meetings can be "counterproductive," said spokesman Adam Sarvana, adding that the liberal firebrand sees no need for "the Republicans to show up here to yell at him." Instead, Grijalva has opted for themed meetings, small venues and press conferences.

Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) has held a marathon of 13 town halls in his reliably Republican district this recess. But the threat of yelling activists was on his mind: He began several recent forums by mentioning a MoveOn.org primer on disrupting events.

"I referenced to it and said, this is what some people are trying to do," Griffin said. "I just want everybody to be heard, to be civil and respectful."

Being mobbed by protesters in 2009 hasn't stopped Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) from holding traditional town halls, said spokesman Jon Schneider. But Bishop has spent most of his time meeting with constituents one on one and making casual appearances this recess.

FreedomWorks has developed an online networking tool, called Freedom Connector, that helps users find nearby conservative activists, groups, and events. Liberal blog the Daily Kos has linked to Freedom Connector as a source of information on when and where to find elected officials.

The situation doesn't mean lawmakers aren't meeting with constituents--they are. But scheduling quirks like charging for events, timing events inconveniently, and hosting events for specific interest groups have helped lawmakers limit their exposure to confrontational constituents.

Congressional aides insisted that their events are well publicized through e-mail, website announcements, or alerts in local newspapers. They cited scheduling issues as the top reason for announcing an event on short notice.

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Sophie Quinton is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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