Congress recessed for 10 days Thursday and many lawmakers returned to their home districts to hold in-person town hall events. According to Smithsonianmag.com, the very first town hall in the United States was established in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1633. “Per the town’s court records, every Monday at the sound of an 8 a.m. bell, townspeople held a meeting to settle and establish ‘such orders as may tend to the general good as aforesayd.’ ” U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, held 115 town halls in 2017, the most of any lawmaker from either party, according to Town Hall Project.
Here’s the thing about town halls these days. If you’re a Republican lawmaker, you’re effectively organizing a protest against yourself when you schedule an in-person town hall.
To those lawmakers we say: That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
In-person town halls serve an important purpose in our democracy, and no legislator seems to understand that more than Sensenbrenner, whose town halls haven’t exactly been ice cream socials.
“From the moment I began the meeting, much of what I said was met with loud boos and the waving of ‘disagree’ signs. Some spoke over individuals who didn’t agree with their points of view, while others interrupted recognized speakers,” Sensenbrenner wrote in describing a 2017 event in an op-ed for The Hill.
But the contentious, even boorish, atmosphere didn’t stop Sensenbrenner from having another town hall, and another, and dozens more.
So why would he keep doing it knowing he was going to absorb more blows?
“No matter how factious, perverse, disrespectful or uncomfortable such meetings have become, the importance of holding them never diminishes. Rather than avoid the unpleasant atmosphere of some of my meetings this year, I chose to carry on. Positive change can’t happen without open and honest dialogue between elected officials and their constituents, and accountability to those we represent is critical for a truly representative government,” Sensenbrenner wrote.
We’ve made no secret of our desire to see more — a lot more — of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, both Republicans, in Lancaster County. We’ve made several pleas to Smucker (who has held numerous telephone events) to schedule an in-person town hall. None has been scheduled. In fact, Smucker hasn’t had a single in-person town hall since he was elected to Congress.
Our readers have noticed.
“What is the difference between Punxsutawney Phil and Congressman Lloyd Smucker?” wrote Terry Zeller, of Mount Joy, in January. “The groundhog comes out of his hole every year to tell us whether there will be six more weeks of winter or an early spring, whereas ‘The Smucker’ refuses to hold even one live town hall to answer questions from his constituents.”
More than anything else, this is disappointing. And it’s not who Smucker was as a state senator. Nor was this the Smucker we believed we were getting when the LNP Editorial Board endorsed him in 2016.
“We trust Smucker to champion the concerns of Lancaster County residents in Congress. He understands the challenges we’re facing here,” we wrote at the time.
The only way for Smucker to truly connect with voters — supporters and critics alike — is to meet with them, in-person, in an open forum.
But a word or two here for those clamoring for Smucker to hold a town hall.
If you want Smucker, or any other lawmaker for that matter, to hold a public event because it’s the ideal venue to shout and create a public spectacle, you might want to sit out the rest of this editorial.
The reason lawmakers shy away from town halls is they tend to turn into free-for-alls. No one listens. There’s a lot of yelling, some chanting, and ultimately, nothing gets accomplished.
For example, Republicans state Sen. Scott Martin and state Rep. Bryan Cutler were routinely disrupted at a town hall in May. There were emotional exchanges along with some name-calling and other unpleasantness from constituents. In the end, it wasn’t the least bit constructive.
We would like to believe a civil discourse is still possible. If you agree, by all means, keep calling for a town hall because we believe Smucker owes the people of his district — Republicans, Democrats and independents — a good, old-fashioned, face-to-face chinwag.
But let’s do it the right way.
As Sensenbrenner wrote, “Whether or not we agree, we can be agreeable. It’s how we grow as communities and as a nation.”