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NPR's Scott Simon talks to Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. He's held more town halls this term than any other member of Congress, many of whom have canceled events in the wake of protests.


Constituent town halls have long been a staple for members of Congress. Lately, though, those meetings have become hotbeds of protest. Democratic groups have organized people in Republican-controlled districts to pack several town halls and speak out against changes to the Affordable Care Act. So members of Congress have skipped or canceled planned meetings but not Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from southwest Wisconsin. He's responsible for a quarter of all town halls held by the 289 Republicans in Congress this term. Mr. Sensenbrenner joins us on the line from Delafield, Wisc., which I happen to know is a beautiful suburb of Milwaukee. Thanks very much for being with us.

JIM SENSENBRENNER: Well, thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: You're holding your 41st town hall of the term later today, right?

SENSENBRENNER: Yes, we'll start in about a half an hour.

SIMON: Why are they so important to you?

Well, I've had over 100 town hall meetings face to face every year since I was first elected to Congress in 1978. These are important to me because I'll be able to hear what my constituents have to say, but I will also have to explain to somebody who disagrees with me why I am taking the position I am. And I think having an explanation is a matter of respect when I fall on the other side than someone who is speaking to me would vote and take a position if they occupied the seat that the voters have entrusted to me. And I've gotten two or three ideas at town meetings that I have brought out to Washington, introduced legislation, and they actually passed both houses and were signed into law.

SIMON: Mr. Sensenbrenner, have you had people get to their feet and say, Congressman, if the Affordable Care Act is rolled back, me and/or my family lose our health care coverage, and I don't want that.

SENSENBRENNER: I've heard that quite often. However, my response is is that health insurance will be available to everyone under the replacement plan that, beginning next week, is going to start its way through congressional committees. And the devil is in the details and don't be so hasty in saying that the Affordable Care Act ought to stay the way it is until you see the details of what the replacement will be. What I have said consistently, and the president said it last Tuesday in his address to Congress, is that any replacement plan will prohibit insurance companies from excluding people with preexisting conditions from coverage. That has been the major concern that people have expressed if the Affordable Care Act goes. And I tell them that Speaker Ryan, myself and now the president of United States have said that you don't have to worry about that issue. And...

Can - well, let me just ask, Mr. Sensenbrenner, though, could you - can you understand the anxiety of people who, you know, don't know that until the plan is proposed and, you know, for that matter something becomes law? It strikes a lot of people that there's much more concentration on overturning the act than replacing it with something concrete.

SENSENBRENNER: Well, this has been a debate in the campaign, and the voters elected Donald Trump and returned a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. One of the things that I think is sacred is that we live up to our campaign promises. The president is doing it, Speaker Ryan is doing it, and I am doing it. And the people voted for us to repeal and replace Obamacare because there are people that are saying that the plans that are available to me, I've got $500 to $800 a month in premiums, then I've got $5,000 in deductibles, and I have to spend almost $10,000 to $15,000 a year to get coverage before I can collect a penny.

And the problem with that is that middle-income people who don't get any kind of subsidies or tax credits, you know, end up finding that under Obamacare this is unaffordable. And then if they don't have insurance, they get fined by the IRS. All of this is bad. All of this is government controlled and bureaucratic. And what Republicans want to do is to put doctors and patients and patients' families back in charge of people's health care rather than having pencil pushers of the government or in some insurance office doing that job.

SIMON: Let me ask you this - it's reported that some of your constituents yesterday voiced their concern about contact between President Trump's team and Russian officials before the election. Are you concerned?

SENSENBRENNER: Well, if - I think that the Russians tried to meddle in our election, and we ought to get to the bottom of exactly how they did it and make that public. You know, on the other hand, I don't know one person who has changed their vote from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump because Vladimir Putin wanted them to do that. So I don't think that any Russian meddling was outcome determinative. You know, the Obama administration was meddling in foreign elections. You know, the Senate found out that the Obama administration was taking (ph) people on and maybe financing with public money a campaign against Benjamin Netanyahu in the last Israeli election. Foreign meddling elections is bad whether it's done by the Russians here or by us or anyplace else.

SIMON: Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a 38-year veteran of the House of Representatives, thanks so much for being with us, sir.


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The 10 lawmakers who have held the most in-person town hall meetings over the last two years are all Republicans.

Since the beginning of the 114th Congress in 2015, four Republicans — Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.), Sens. Mike Crapo (Idaho) and Jerry Moran (Kan.) and former Rep. Tim Huelskamp (Kan.) — held more than 100 in-person town hall meetings.

And 24 of the 28 lawmakers who have held the most town halls, according to records maintained by the independent site Legistorm, are Republicans.

Protests at town hall meetings by those defending the Affordable Care Act have led some lawmakers to pare back or cancel their in-person events. 

Critics of President Trump and people worried that ObamaCare’s repeal could leave them without health insurance have shouted, jeered and asked tough questions to a number of Republican lawmakers, earning headlines and cable news coverage in the process.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) both came under fire at recent events, while Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) had to be escorted out of one raucous gathering by local police.

Democratic activists and those who support ObamaCare have castigated Republicans for skipping town hall meetings during the February recess, when more than 200 members of Congress did not hold in-person town hall events.

Some of those who faced their angry constituents dismissed protesters as little more than paid instigators. Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called those who showed up at an event in Salt Lake City “a concerted effort in part to just cause chaos.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the protesters a “very paid, AstroTurf-type movement,” though he gave no evidence that any of the protesters had been paid to show up.

The Legistorm data shows that most of the members holding dozens and dozens of town halls are in the GOP.

For example, 13 members of Congress have held more than 50 such events since Jan. 1, 2015. Only two of them — Sens. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) — are Democrats.

The Republicans on that list include Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Rand Paul (Ky.) and Reps. Mike Conaway (Texas), Frank Lucas (Okla.), Tom Reed (N.Y.), Tim Walberg (Mich.) and Blake Farenthold (Texas).

Among the 50 members of Congress who have held the most in-person town hall meetings over the last two years, 39 are Republicans.

The more recent reluctance of national Republicans to appear at town hall meetings recalls the summer of 2009, when voters’ anger over Democratic efforts to overhaul healthcare in the midst of the recession led to heated confrontations that played in an endless loop on cable television networks. 

Some Democrats dismissed those efforts, too, as paid protest movements. Republicans won back control of the House of Representatives the following year. 

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Two longtime members of Congress spent the month of February answering questions from their constituents, even as loud protests over the Affordable Care Act led other members to cancel their own in-person events.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) held 16 town hall meetings last month, more than any other member of Congress. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) led the House with 12 events, according to data collected by the independent site Legistorm.

The town halls came as some Republicans have faced constituents angry over President Trump’s policies, particularly his effort to repeal ObamaCare.

In Washington, the town halls have been watched closely for signs that they could make Republicans nervous about moving forward with legislation.
A number of Republicans have taken heat for avoiding confrontations with their constituents, but many others have made multiple appearances.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who is a key player in the GOP effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare, held seven events. Democrats criticized Walden for avoiding Bend, the largest and most liberal city in his mostly rural district.

Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) each held five in-person town hall meetings. Reps. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) each held four open events in their districts.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R), who holds events in each of Iowa’s 99 counties every year, hit four counties over the mid-February recess.

Many faced angry activists demanding Congress keep ObamaCare on the books. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), one of a handful of members who held three in-person events in February, was escorted out of one town hall meeting by local police officers.

Sanford, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who has introduced his own bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, told constituents he would not vote to repeal ObamaCare without a replacement waiting in the wings. Sanford told NPR that he valued the town halls he has held, even though he was met with some boos.

“I think we really had a meaningful exchange where people, at a heartfelt level, told me why certain things were important to them, why they mattered as they did. And I think that’s what you’d want in any town hall exchange,” Sanford said. 

Sensenbrenner and Wyden have made a point to be available to constituents throughout their careers. Sensenbrenner has held more than 520 town hall meetings since 2013, all of which have been in-person, according to Nicole Tieman, Sensenbrenner’s spokeswoman. Wyden tries to hold meetings in every county in Oregon every year.

Some members hold events that are not in person as a way to make contact with voters.

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) appeared on six radio stations across his state in February, for what he called radio town halls. Cramer held one in-person event, at a coffee shop in Fargo. 

Reps. Andy Harris (R-Md.) and Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) each held three telephone town hall meetings in February. Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.) used Facebook to interact with constituents three times in the last month.

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LANNON - U.S. Rep James Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls) is no rookie when it comes to town hall meetings; in fact, he has held more in-person meetings than any member of Congress with more than 525 town hall events since 2013.

Since the start of the year alone, he's already held nearly 40. Despite the congressman's regular presence in his constituents' communities, every second of the meetings on Friday, March 3, across Waukesha County suburbs were accounted for with questions and concerns from residents.

Sensenbrenner started his day in Butler and traveled to Lannon, Sussex, Merton and Nashotah for 45-minute meetings where, virtually, no topic was off-limits.

One Lannon audience member who had also attended his Butler session said she kept hearing him use the line "the devil is in the details."

"Mr. Sensenbrenner you say the devil is in the details; I say the devil is in the White House."

Residents shared their concerns over the future of Medicare and Social Security benefits in Lannon.

“I’m concerned about the privatization of Medicare," said one Lannon audience member. "When you are 80 years old and have cancer, you don’t have the energy or the strength to fight the insurance companies. We’re at the mercy of these insurance companies.”

Sensenbrenner said the problem facing traditional Social Security benefits is "there are more older people that are drawing benefits and fewer younger people in the labor market to pay the taxes on those benefits."

The congressman said it's up to congress to make a change before 2033.

"If congress does nothing to change the formula on that, there will be an automatic 27-percent cut in Social Security benefits. In 2033, I will be 90 years old and I’m not going to be in Congress then. It’s going to be up to those who are in Congress to prevent the bottom from being pulled out from people who are on Social Security at that time.”

One man in Lannon asked Sensenbrenner about his take on global warming, climate change and what needs to be done to address the problem.

"I think there is a man-made impact on climate change; there is a scientific consensus that is the case, but there is no scientific consensus on how much human action impacts the climate," Sensenbrenner said. 

He said the answer to the problem of climate change lies in the use of better technology.

"We need to have better technology to be able to reduce emissions," Sensenbrenner said. "We cannot put ourselves at a disadvantage to countries like China and India. If we raise our energy prices and they’re allowed to continue to do business as usual … then there’s going to be a great outsourcing of jobs to places like China and India. I will not support, under any circumstances, something that has that as a result.”

Village of Lannon Trustee and president candidate Jerry Newman was in attendance at the town hall meeting. He said he trusts Sensenbrenner's stance on immigration for a very personal reason.

"The Congressman helped my wife (who is originally from Indonesia) get a green card 13 years ago," Newman said. "It was quite a challenge. It took us five years to get a green card and many thousands of dollars, so I’m of course very anti people walking across the border. He’s been very helpful, and he does a fantastic job. I’m always amazed at his memory; he knows all these facts and figures. I give him a lot of credit.”

One of the final questions in Lannon for the Congressman was in regard to the current administration, and it generated a lot of unrest among the audience to the point where the Congressman announced his departure.

"Are you willing to stand up against some of the really ridiculous things that are coming from the White House, or are you going to be like most Republicans? I voted for you, so this can’t be a sore loser thing because I’m tired of hearing that line; this isn’t about sore losers. There are strange things coming from the White House to the point of being ridiculous; they cannot be trusted. I want to know if you are prepared to stand up for what’s right?"

Sensenbrenner reminded the audience that it was important to accept the idea that the Cresident would remain in office for the next four years.

“When that first immigration order came out, I said it wasn’t right," Sensenbrenner said. "Sometimes, we do have a little problem getting press coverage when we say something is right or not right. I would just point out to you that the president has done lot of things by executive order."

In Sussex, audience members began shouting at the Congressman when he began leaving around 10:45 a.m. for his Merton town hall meeting, which was to start at 11:15 a.m.; they claimed he was leaving far too early to get to a village that was five minutes away from Sussex, and in essence, they were not given enough time to ask questions.

Sensenbrenner's communications director Nicole Tieman said the circumstances of his departure was due to his very busy meeting schedule.

"Normally, office hour sessions, such as the ones held today, are sparsely attended and end much more quickly than a traditional town hall meeting," Tieman said. "With that in mind, they are scheduled differently than a traditional town hall meeting, with less time allotted for each one. Although the Congressman has been holding frequent office hours and meetings since he was first elected, it’s only been recently that there’s been a significant uptick in interest. Unfortunately, that means that there is not always time to get to every question in the amount of time available. However, in addition to the many in-person meeting opportunities the Congressman provides, constituents are welcome and encouraged to contact our office by phone, email, or standard mail with any questions, concerns, or opinions they’d like to share with the Congressman. Every constituent who contacts our office and wishes to receive a response from the Congressman receives one in short order."

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The first priority of Congress is to protect the safety and sanctity of the American people and our nation. That means guarding against those who seek to threaten that safety. Border security is imperative to protecting our nation, and we must strengthen our efforts to safeguard where our country is most vulnerable. Protecting our borders from the illegal movement of drugs is crucial part of ensuring the safety of all Americans. 

Opinions on the best approach to securing our border are varied. Whether it’s new infrastructure, advanced technological solutions, increased law enforcement, or a combination of these things, the ultimate approach we take must ensure that the American taxpayer isn’t left to foot the bill. We must implement innovative, cost effective solutions to enhance our current border security efforts, and the BUILD WALL Act of 2017 does just that.

The Build Up Illegal Line Defenses With Assets Lawfully Lifted (BUILD WALL) Act would require the U.S. Attorney General to provide a detailed report on the amount of annual profits brought into the United States by Mexican drug cartels. It would also require a study of how the Department of Justice can increase assets seized from such cartels. The legislation would then use money forfeited from drug traffickers to fund increased security on the U.S./Mexican border. This could include a wall, another type of physical barrier, or infrastructure improvement. It could also be a technology-supported solution, such as sensors, radars, and aerial assets. Most likely, it will be a combination of these things.  

The Justice Department estimates up to $39 billion is collected annually by Mexican drug cartels from sales in the United States. Instead of allowing foreign criminals to feed and profit from our nation’s struggle with addiction, we should use these forfeited funds to secure our border and stop the flow of illegal drugs into our country.

The BUILD WALL Act of 2017 is a common sense solution that would keep the American people, and their pocketbooks, safe. Using funds forfeited from drug traffickers instead of taxpayers would ease the financial burdens on hardworking Americans and help build stronger relations between the United States and Mexico while fighting back against drug trafficking in both countries.
Dear Editor: On March 1, the Cap Times published a column by Dave Zweifel in which he claimed that I “couldn’t possibly think that those constituents are worth representing” referring to those who come to my town hall meetings with views different from my own. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nationwide, elected officials are being criticized for not holding town hall meetings. I have prioritized them. I hold more than any other member by far — hosting more than 100 meetings annually, and they are all in-person so my constituents, no matter their political leanings, can speak to me face to face. 

During the months leading to Nov. 8, I was clear and honest about my agenda, just as I have been since my first term in Congress. Voters know what they’re getting with me, because when I make a promise, I keep it.

I ask Mr. Zweifel, and those who agree with his opinion, to consider how they would feel if Congressman Mark Pocan suddenly supported the repeal and replace of Obamacare, after campaigning and promising to preserve it.

I hold frequent town hall meetings because I’ve always believed that the people deserve to see who represents them, and to have an open forum to voice concerns and discuss the issues. Whether or not we agree, it’s productive to have these conversations — it’s how we grow as a community and a nation. I listen to all points of view, I consider the merits of arguments, and I often make decisions based on input from my constituents. I will not, however, walk back promises I made to the voters who soundly elected me.

Whether you agree or disagree with my politics, I’m frequently in my district providing my constituents with an opportunity to speak with me directly, and despite criticisms, I will continue to do so. I look forward to seeing everyone at my next town hall.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner released the following statement on President Trump’s address to the Joint Session of Congress:

Congressman Sensenbrenner:
“In tonight’s Joint Address, President Trump outlined a straightforward and optimistic vision for the future of this nation. He spoke to the concerns of every American and extended an olive branch across the aisle, highlighting the need to work cooperatively to find serious, lasting solutions to the fundamental issues that weaken our economy, hurt hardworking American families, and threaten our country’s future.” 

Have Gavel, Will Travel

February 27, 2017

Wisconsin’s Jim Sensenbrenner has held the most town halls this year - See more at:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner reintroduced legislation to prohibit the sale of fetal tissue acquired by performing an abortion. 

The Safe Responsible, Ethical Scientific Endeavors Assuring Research for Compassionate Healthcare (RESEARCH) Act would amend Section 498A of the Public Health Act to state that human fetal tissue may be used for research purposes, but only if it is obtained as a result of a stillbirth or ectopic pregnancy, not from an abortion procedure. 

Not only is harvesting and selling fetal tissue a gruesome and horrific process, advancements in medical technology, such as adult stem cell science, has rendered fetal tissue an unnecessary option for medical researchers. The Safe RESEARCH Act would help end this practice and take another important step forward in protecting the lives of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens. 

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “Due to a poorly drafted section of federal law, Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics throughout the country are legally able to sell fetal tissue to research institutions. This despicable practice is morally bankrupt, victimizes the defenseless, and increases profits for organizations that have no regard for human life. This legislation is an important step forward in the ongoing efforts to protect innocent lives and fight on behalf of the unborn.”

Earlier this month, the Family Research Council announced Congressman Sensenbrenner received a perfect score during the 114th Congress on its annual Vote Scorecard for Members of Congress who demonstrate an unwavering commitment to the protection of unborn children.