What to do When Your Member of Congress Holds a Sham Town Hall

Group Leader Resources | April 1, 2017

During the last recess period, several Members of Congress (MoCs) adopted tactics aimed at suppressing your involvement in their public events and town halls. Here are some tips for dealing with Sham Town Halls in your district.

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The games your Members of Congress play. During the last recess period, several Members of Congress (MoCs) adopted tactics aimed at suppressing your involvement in their public events and town halls. Some refused to meet in-person with their constituents, holding Tele-Town Halls that could only be accessed via phone or Facebook. Others limited their public events to specific groups—telling many of you that you weren’t welcome at their town halls. A few went so far as to ban questions and discussion at their public events, choosing instead to force an audience full of their constituents to sit quietly while they read prescreened questions from index cards without allowing any time for follow-ups or debate.

But don’t worry, Indivisibles—there’s another recess period in April. Here are some tips for dealing with Sham Town Halls in your district.

A GROUP OF ANGELIC TROUBLEMAKERS

SHAM TOWN HALLS SUMMARY

Tele-Town Halls are when an MoC literally phones it in—speaking to a few select and carefully screened callers while remaining in D.C. and, quite possibly, wearing pajamas. But you can turn the next Tele-Town Hall in your favor.

  1. Do not accept the Tele-Town Hall format—demand better from your MoC and counter-program their Sham Town Hall with a real one of your own.

  2. When you call in, be warm, polite, and vague to beat the screening process.

  3. Compile and share a list of all the questions you and your group tried to ask.

Town halls where your MoC reads questions from a card are a lot like the worst game of Go Fish or Bingo that you’ve ever played. They are an easy way for your MoC to ignore your important questions and limit discussion. But you can turn this Sham Town Hall into the public debate it ought to be.

  1. When your MoC reads your card or a question similar to the one that you asked, stand up and ask the question yourself.

  2. If your MoC refuses to engage with you, return the favor with some tactics we borrowed from March Madness.

  3. Tweet us all of your questions, whether your MoC responds to them or not.

  4. Compile and share a list of all the questions you and your group submitted.

Private town halls are an oxymoron—it can’t be a town hall unless the whole town is invited. But you can turn this Sham Town Hall in your favor.

  1. Find out how much time your MoC spends meeting with campaign donors and special interests—then demand that they dedicate an equal amount of time to public town hall events in their district.

  2. Ask the members of your group if any of them fit the criteria being used by your MoC for their special interest town hall. Send those who do.

Town halls that your MoC hopes no one will attend are those scheduled at times and in places they know are inconvenient for most of their constituents. But you can overcome these Sham Town Halls, too.

  1. Organize your group around a press strategy demanding that your MoC hold a more reasonably scheduled town hall.

  2. If your MoC won’t listen, turn the event’s limitations in your group’s favor by showing up early and organizing a caravan to their remote town hall location.

TELE-TOWN HALLS

“Tele-Town Halls” are when a MoC declines to hold an in-person town hall, but instead offers a call-in number or Facebook Live event. These can seem like relatively benign, earnest attempts for MoCs to reach a broad cross-section of their constituency. Some Senators, for example, justified their reliance on these events by saying that they provide a way for constituents across the entire state to ask questions and share concerns.

This sounds reasonable, right? But trust us friends—Tele-Town Halls are a sham. Here’s why:

The questions and comments shared during Tele-Town Halls are heavily screened by staffers. When we worked in Congress, we all did this too. Tele-Town Halls are a great way to make sure that your MoC only answers the kinds of questions they want to answer. No staffer who is interested in keeping their job will pass a truly controversial or potentially embarrassing question along to their MoC for a public response.

MoCs usually participate in Tele-Town Halls from their offices in D.C., where their staff can help feed them talking points behind the scenes. Ever wonder how your MoC is able to move so deftly from topic-to-topic during these calls? It’s because their staff is constantly feeding them talking points and briefing materials when they aren’t screening your questions.

The process works like this: first, a junior staffer screens your questions. Then, they use a call-in software program to flag questions that the MoC should definitely answer (hint: they’re usually softballs) and to highlight ones they should absolutely avoid. Next, another staffer checks the flagged calls to see which ones are coming up and finds the appropriate talking points for their MoC. Finally, the MoC takes your call and responds to your question by reading the talking points their staffer just handed to them. Literally, they are sticking to the script.

MoCs can do almost anything they want during a Tele-Town Hall. Are they streaming reruns of Lost on their laptop? Are they making anagrams out of “Donald Trump” on the back of a napkin? Are they in their bathrobe and pajamas? Nobody knows.

Why do MoCs use this format? Maybe they planned their event back when “Hotline Bling” was still cool. We’re not sure. Most of the time, we know that they do it because many MoCs are surprisingly bad at talking to people. MoCs are at their best when they’re able to stick to a small set of talking points. Tele-Town Halls allow them to do that in secret while giving the impression that they’ve thought more about your questions and concerns than they actually have.

But don’t worry—we have some tips for how to respond to a MoC who’s holding a Tele-Town Hall.

  1. Do NOT accept the Sham Tele-Town Hall—demand better. Counter-program their town hall by hosting a public event of your own—and make sure you invite your MoC. It isn’t enough to just call a Tele-Town Hall a sham—though they are and you should call them that! We’d recommend holding your own town hall in a public venue near one of your MoC’s district offices at the same time. Invite your MoC, the press, and the rest of your community.Your MoC will likely try to justify holding a Tele-Town Hall by claiming that it allows them to reach a broader swath of the state. They won’t have any evidence to back this claim up, but they’ll make it nonetheless. You can undermine it with a simple trick: bring a large map of your state or district your town hall and provide enough post-its or push pins for everyone there to mark where they traveled from to attend. Then take pictures and send them to us via Twitter (@indivisibleteam).Note: Be sure to consult our Missing Members Toolkit for advice on how to stage, market, and maximize the impact of your counter-programming event!
  2. When you call into their Tele-Town Hall and get connected to a screener, be warm, polite, and vague. This is one area where real town halls and Tele-Town Halls overlap. Staffers are far more likely to select you for a question if you appear friendly and civil—two things you ought to be anyway! So when a staffer answers your call, be warm and polite during your exchange. Don’t tell them you’d like to give the MoC a piece of your mind or that you’re an angry constituent. Also, don’t tell them you’d like to know why the MoC is supporting the Trump Agenda. Rather, be vague and be honest—tell them you’re concerned about the ACA and would like to ask your MoC how they plan to address our nation’s healthcare issues.
  3. Compile all of the questions you and your group asked (or didn’t get to ask) during the Tele-Town Hall and share them with the press and your MoC. You should do this whether you were able to make it through the screening process or not. Consider having a couple of people with particularly compelling personal stories film videos, too. Once you do, share them with us, the press, and your MoC. We recommend using our sample press advisory to write a quick summary of your event and then attaching your list of questions to it with a simple request: that your MoC respond to each of them.

SAMPLE EXCHANGE TO BEAT THE SCREEN

TOWN HALLS WHERE YOUR MOC READS QUESTIONS FROM A CARD

Some of your MoCs have begun holding town halls at which they read a series of pre-submitted questions from cards. Sometimes they respond to the card questions one at a time and sometimes they read them all and then respond with a platitudinous, carefully scripted response.

But these events shouldn’t feel like the worst rounds of Go Fish or Bingo that you’ve ever played. Town halls are about discussion, accountability, and engaging with constituents’ real life concerns—none of which is possible in this format.

You can turn these events into the instruments of democracy they’re supposed to be. Here’s how:

  1. If your MoC reads your card or a question similar to the one you asked, stand up and ask the question yourself. Most MoCs prefer to stick to a limited set of talking points and to get into a comfortable rhythm during public events. This is a great way to get them off their talking points and to force them to engage with your humanity—it’s much easier to dismiss the concerns of a carefully screened index card than those of a living, breathing human being. Don’t take your seat or stop asking asking follow-up questions until your MoC gives you an acceptable response.A note for the well-organized: you can also create what’s known as “The People’s Microphone” in these situations. It works like this. Your MoC reads your question from the card. You stand up to ask it yourself in your own words. The people immediately in front of you then repeat your question in unison and at a slightly higher volume. Then, the people in front of them do the same until the question makes it’s way to the front row and to your MoC. It’s like “The Wave,” but for engaging in democracy instead of killing time at a baseball game.
  2. If your MoC refuses to engage with you, then return the favor. If you find yourself in this situation, there are lots of fun ways to show your displeasure without sacrificing your commitment to civility.One option is to bring coordinated signs to the event to show your approval or displeasure. When your MoC chooses to speak to an index card instead of you and your group, hold up signs that voice your displeasure and disrupt the visual your MoC would like to create. During the last recess period, some of our groups brought signs that said “disagree” or contained a “thumbs-down” icon. Some simply brought blank sheets of red paper. Be creative! Remember, most MoCs love two things about town halls: they get covered by local press and it offers them an opportunity for a photo op with a room full of attentive constituents. If your MoC won’t engage in a good-faith effort to address your questions and concerns, then there’s no reason they should get good press out of it. There’s nothing your MoC fears more than a cover story in their local paper with a big image of them disappointing their constituents.Another is to make sure that all of your group members come to the town hall with a newspaper. When your MoC refuses to answer your questions—in effect, refusing to engage with you and your neighbors—then hold up your newspapers in unison and read them instead of humoring your MoC. Discussion requires two willing parties. If they aren’t willing to participate, you should do whatever you can to make sure the press covering the event know it.Note: If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve all been watching too much March Madness. This tactic obviously works best when there’s a big headline or story about your MoC that can be displayed like the “Beat Texas” newspapers here. But even without one, this tactic is sure to get your MoC’s attention.
  3. Tweet all of your questions, whether your MoC reads them aloud or not. When you do, make sure that you tag us (@IndivisibleTeam), your MoC, and a few of your local reporters. You should also use your event’s hashtag (e.g., #CottonTownHall) so that it’s easy for other local and national reporters to find.
  4. Compile all of the questions you and your group asked during the town hall and share them with the press and your MoC. You should do this whether you were able to ask them or not. Once you do, share them with us, the press, and your MoC. We recommend using our sample press advisory to write a quick summary of your event and then attaching your list of questions to it with a simple request: that your MoC respond to each of them.

PRIVATE TOWN HALLS

Many of your MoCs chose to hold notionally public town halls that were only open to certain groups of people. Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) did so, holding a town hall targeted to veterans. Senator John Boozman (R-AR) did the same for health insurance executives.

Our response to this was: Great! Holding town halls for veterans is something our MoCs should do much more often. But holding one or two limited attendance town halls every few months isn’t enough. Here’s why:

  • Holding town halls that limit who can attend is an easy way for MoCs to ensure that no one with an opposing view is allowed inside. Whether they won your district by one vote or one-hundred thousand, their job is to engage with everyone in their district—not just the ones who voted for them.
  • It isn’t a town hall if the whole town isn’t invited. Your MoC’s public events should be just that—public. This isn’t Mean Girls and your MoC isn’t Regina George. Don’t settle for a private town hall.

We have some tips for how to respond to an MoC who is holding private town halls:

  1. Find out how much time your MoC spends meeting with campaign donors and special interests—then demand that they dedicate an equal amount of time to public town hall events in their district. When they try to tell you that it’s a necessary part of the job that they too hate, you can point them to other MoCs who have managed to keep raising campaign cash, getting re-elected, and hosting an ambitious, exemplary town hall schedule across their district or state.
  2. Ask the members of your group if any of them fit the criteria being used by your MoC for their special interest town hall. It’s very likely that your group has a substantial share of veterans, insurance or business executives, seniors, and even disaffected Republicans. Send them to your MoC’s town hall and make sure they read our Reclaim Recess resources so they’re prepared to ask tough questions.

IF RON WYDEN CAN DO IT, YOUR MOC CAN TOO!

TOWN HALLS YOUR MOC HOPES NO ONE WILL ATTEND

Some MoCs have yielded to the pressure to hold a town hall, but they’re still doing their best to stack the deck and avoid facing any angry constituents. Below are some tactics that MoCs have adopted to create the illusion of accessibility while still, in practice, making it very hard to engage with them:

Your MoC might schedule their town hall at a time when few people can attend. Ever wonder why your MoC’s events are held at 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday or 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday? It’s because they know most people can’t come at that time. It’s an easy way for them to hold an event with low turnout, then use that sparse attendance as an excuse for refusing to hold more town halls. “See”, your MoC might say, “no one showed up for the event I scheduled [during work hours] last week. There’s no demand for more public forums.” This is, of course, ridiculous.

Your MoC might schedule their town hall in a venue that seats a couple dozen people. Limiting the size of their audience is a pretty common way for MoCs to control their events. Many of you have already encountered this when trying to meet with in-district staff, some of whom have only agreed to meet with our groups four or five members at a time.

Your MoC might host their town hall in an area that’s as far as possible from constituents they know aren’t happy with them. This is especially true for Senators, who hold most of their events in areas of the state that they win in elections while limiting—or avoiding altogether—their presence in communities that might vote against them.

Your MoC might invite a bunch of their friends and colleagues to co-host the town hall with them. “Isn’t this great,” your MoC might say, “now you get to meet with all of us at once.” But really, this is a ploy to limit how many questions you’re allowed to ask. Town hall panels—where multiple elected officials join together for a single event—often include opening and closing remarks from each official. And as you surely know, MoCs like to hear themselves talk. Hosting a town hall with a bunch of their colleagues is basically a public filibuster—they get to spend most of the time allocated for the event talking at you instead of with you. Also, panel town halls allow MoCs to pass off questions that were intended for them to other elected officials—or to ignore them entirely. They are generally a waste of time.

Your MoC might schedule a really short town hall. Some MoCs will do whatever they can to minimize how much time they spend with you. If your MoC schedules a town hall for less than two hours, they’re trying to avoid you.

Here are some tips for how to respond to an MoC who’s holding town halls they hope that no one will attend:

  1. Organize your group to run a press campaign demanding that your MoC hold an event that more people can attend. Use our tips for garnering media attention to call out your MoC for adopting any of these crowd suppression tactics and suggest a time, place, and venue that works for you and your group. Use all of the points above to articulate why holding a town hall during the workday or in a tiny venue is unacceptable. Remember, there’s nothing your MoC hates more than bad local press. This is a great way to pressure them into doing the right thing.
  2. If your MoC ignores you and goes on with hosting a town hall that they hope no one will attend, you can still find ways to make your voice heard. We recommend that:If your MoC hosts a town hall that begins too early for you to attend, show up whenever you can.It’s likely that you won’t be allowed to enter the venue, but that’s OK. Show up with a few dozen (or hundred) of your friends and wait patiently outside. You’ll draw attention from the press covering the event and then you can explain to them how much you wish you could speak with your MoC, if only they’d hold their events at a time when more people could attend.

    If your MoC hosts a town hall in a tiny venue, show up as early as possible to fill the seats with your group. Some MoCs will go even further, hosting a private event in the same venue with campaign donors and party operatives before their “public” town hall. Show up as early as you can with as many people as you can to try and ensure your voice is heard.If your MoC hosts a town hall that’s several hours away, plan a road trip—or better yet, a caravan—with friends from your local group. During the February recess, one of our group’s members drove 6 hours each way to attend their own MoC’s town hall. That shouldn’t be something that we’re forced to do.If your MoC hosts a panel town hall with a bunch of their friends, don’t let them spend all their time making opening and closing remarks. If they panelists begin the event with a set of long-winded remarks, use your phone or watch to track how much time they spend doing so. Then, when the first member of your group asks a question, politely inform the panelists that they spent “x” minutes talking at you instead of with you and that you don’t think that time should count towards the “y” hours they promised for the town hall. Ask the others in attendance to stand or cheer if they agree with you.If your MoC hosts a really short town hall, make sure to underscore how disappointed you are in them every time someone from your group asks a question. For instance, once you’ve introduced yourself, you might also say “I’m disappointed that you’re only willing to spend an hour with us today, especially since you found time to attend [x] fundraisers last week.” Scheduling short town halls that are intended to suppress constituent questions is shameful behavior—don’t be afraid to shame your MoC for it.

A NOTE ON SAFETY AND PRIVILEGE