Lawmakers opt for fewer town meetings with voters

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WASHINGTON -- Rep. Pete Sessions is no stranger to town hall meetings and their political possibilities. Four summers ago, the Texas Republican helped his party use them to stoke opposition to President Barack Obama's proposed health care overhaul. Across the nation, forums such as his fed a budding Tea Party movement and set the stage for returning the House to GOP control in 2010.

But when Mr. Sessions returned this month to his Dallas-area district for the August recess -- a pause before Congress takes up an agenda that includes immigration, government surveillance, health care and budget cuts -- there was something conspicuously missing from his schedule: a town hall.

One of his constituents, Katrina Pierson, 37, who describes herself as a "conservative grass-roots volunteer" and had hoped to press Mr. Sessions about his commitment to pulling financing from the health care law, is so exasperated that she and a group of like-minded advocates have offered to host a meeting for him. "He can just give us a date," she said. "We'll set it up."

Though Republicans in recent years have harnessed the political power of these open-mike, face-the-music sessions, people from both parties say they are noticing a decline in the number of meetings this time around. They also say they are seeing congressional offices go to greater lengths to conceal when the meetings take place and where they will be held.

"The whole thing is very anti-democratic, and it's classic behavior of entrenched insiders," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a Tea Party group that in 2009 helped send legions of demonstrators to the sessions. Now, it is trying to draw out seemingly reluctant members by staging public events such as mock town halls with empty chairs. "We've lost that Rockwell image of citizen participation in democracy."

With memories of those angry protests still vivid, it seems that one of the unintended consequences of a movement that thrived on such open, often-confrontational interactions with lawmakers is that there are fewer members of Congress now willing to face their constituents.

Members of Congress and their aides were reluctant to talk about the lack of town halls on the record, mindful of the pressure from liberal and conservative groups alike. "Ninety percent of the audience will be there interested in what you have to say," one Senate Republican aide said. "It's the other 5 or 10 percent who aren't. They're there to make a point and, frankly, to hijack the meeting."

Indeed, many who attend the meetings now seem intent on replicating clashes such as one in Pennsylvania in 2009, when former Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican turned Democrat, was shouted down by an angry constituent -- a scene captured on camera and played on an endless loop on cable news.

"The reason 2009 was so successful for the grass-roots was because the politicians never saw it coming," said Jennifer Stefano, state director for the Pennsylvania chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party group. "Now, they know. And they are terrified."

Many lawmakers, often from safe districts, are still holding town halls throughout the month. While a number of them are drawing voters outraged over Mr. Obama's health care law, the intensity is nothing compared to the scale of 2009.

But where there are no gatherings, some groups have decided to take matters into their own hands. After seeing a paltry schedule of congressional town hall meetings this month, another major conservative group, Heritage Action for America, decided that it would stage public forums of its own from Arkansas to Pennsylvania. The aim is to recruit people for a group it calls the Sentinels, a citizens' brigade of sorts to reach lawmakers through other means, such as writing letters to the editor, dialing in to talk-radio programs and mastering the language of Twitter and Facebook.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is sending its advocates into Republican districts with two-dimensional cutouts of members without a traditional town hall on the calendar. Anyone who is feeling especially theatric is being encouraged to debate their cardboard congressman.

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