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The telephone town hall, a forum that members of Congress insist offers them an opportunity to reach out to more constituents than through traditional town halls, is coming under increasing scrutiny from critics who insist that the events are largely rigged and designed to shield skittish lawmakers from facing hostile questioning.
While the tele-town hall isn’t exactly a new communications tool, it’s hard not to notice the sudden proliferation of these events at a time when members have struggled to control raucous crowds and deal with the presence of unfriendly, camera-wielding attendees who are eager to post unflattering videos on the Internet.
Lawmakers insist the tele-town halls enable them to reach out to far more constituents at any one time than an in-person event would. Conservative activists, however, contend that elected officials don’t want to face the music and prefer a more controlled environment where they can cherry-pick questions and dodge the opposition.
In North Carolina, FreedomWorks organizer Joyce Krawiec said that members of her group who called in to some House members’ conference calls reported back that they were unable to ask a question.
In North Dakota, conservative local radio host and blogger Rob Port described a similar experience when he phoned in to Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy’s conference call, despite calling in early to get in line to ask a question. The operator, he said, asked whether he supported or opposed President Barack Obama’s health care plan. When Port said he was undecided — an attempt to ensure that he got to ask a question — he was put on hold for what seemed to him to be an interminable period.
After the first round of questions included a local Service Employees International Union representative, followed by another pro-Obama group’s representative, Port eventually hung up.
It’s an experience that’s been reported across the country over the past two months. Waco, Texas-area tea party organizer Toby Marie Walker and members of her group signed up for an Aug. 20 teleconference with Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards, but some say they never received a call at the appointed time. A few others in the group got on the call but weren’t chosen to ask a question.
“They know me because I call them every day,” Walker said. “He knows who we are, so I guess we didn’t expect to ask any questions.”
Asked for comment about the complaints, a spokesman for Edwards offered this statement.
“Our telephone town hall meeting on health care dialed nearly 200,000 homes in all 12 District 17 counties, and nearly 20,000 constituents participated. Our public town halls in Bryan, Waco and Cleburne were well attended by over 3,000 people. The congressman also participated in health care forums with constituents via webcast and radio call-in programs,” said Josh Taylor. “While some would play politics with the issue of health care, Congressman Edwards believes the issue is too important to our families and country to be influenced by partisan politics.”
Congressional offices and technology experts contacted by POLITICO admit that telephone conference calls are often orchestrated to some degree, but they say they aren’t screening for softballs. Rather, the explanation is that attempts are made to shield lawmakers from unruly behavior.
By pre-screening questions through congressional staffers and using robocalls to reach a random sampling of voters, they note, notorious troublemakers can be kept off the line and a fair balance of opinions heard.
Several congressional offices say that they select questions based on topic, rather than in the order they’re received, to allow lawmakers to address a wide variety of topics and eliminate repeat questions.
When POLITICO listened to 10 recent telephone town halls across the country, the questions posed to lawmakers from both parties tended to be sympathetic or, in some cases, almost fawning.