FORT DODGE, Iowa — From her front row seat at the Fort Dodge Public Library, pugnacious retiree Betty Nostrom wasted no time grilling the U.S. senator standing before 80 constituents over how he was investigating the deaths of four Americans in Libya last fall.
“Or will that just be swept under the rug?” Nostrom asked Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, kicking off an hour of polite, though pointed, questioning.
Farmers, nurses and veterans took turns pressing Grassley on gun control, immigration, the deficit and the Internal Revenue Service scandal, and listening to his answers.
Some in the audience applauded. Others scoffed. But all embraced the chance to put their representative to Washington on the spot, face to face, during the town hall style meeting, a staple of American civics that’s growing increasingly scarce.
These days, lawmakers generally are holding fewer in-person public gatherings with constituents than they have in past years, evidenced by the smattering of such events last week during the Memorial Day congressional recess. Instead, members of Congress are relying far more on telephone and online forums, according to watchdog groups, political organizations and lawmakers themselves.
“There’s a myth out there that legislators aren’t listening,” said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group that advocates best practices for members of Congress. “They are, but we’re seeing them shift to other forums, and the discussions often aren’t as robust.”
Why the shift? For one, angry crowds, sometimes in the thousands, mobbed public question-and-answer meetings in lawmakers’ home states during the raucous debate over health care legislation in 2009. Then there was the shooting rampage in 2011 at a public appearance in Tucson by then-Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz.
Such incidents spooked lawmakers, who also were facing constituents deeply down on Washington and frustrated by high unemployment and foreclosure rates.
Beyond any security concerns, politicians have practical reasons for changing to a more frequent electronic format. Many say those numerous benefits of outweigh the big drawback: They lose the personal touch, the handshake moment at the end of a robust discussion, that can tighten bonds with their constituents.
Some lawmakers say electronic versions of town halls are more efficient and convenient than the real thing.
Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Penn., says he can check in with voters at home without having to travel back, often holding constituent conference calls on Mondays or Tuesdays when Congress is in session.
It’s not just convenient for a lawmaker to arrange. They pay a service to simultaneously call thousands of numbers and ask them to stay on the line for the event to begin. It’s also convenient for constituents to participate. They don’t have to take off of work or get in a car, and they can linger and listen as long as they like.
In an era of shrinking congressional office budgets, advocates say electronic forums also are appealing because they reach many times more people and are cheap to advertise via a single email sent to thousands.
About 20 people showed up for Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney’s meeting in Union, S.C., last week. Mulvaney recalled once advertising a meeting by paying for 1,800 first-class mail notices. He said four people showed up.
Lawmakers more conveniently can collect the contact information from participants in the electronic forums than the in-person kind.
In Fort Dodge, a Grassley aide passed around paper cards for the 80 attendees to fill out return after the meeting for staff to record.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said he once held a call that attracted 50,000 listeners, and he uses the conference calls to conduct opinion polls.
“It gives us a real pulse,” Franks said. “In my judgment it’s just a wonderful way to go.”
At the same time, electronic town hall meetings decrease the risk of ugly confrontations that can be caught on video and posted on YouTube.
Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., said opponents or interest groups sometimes hijack public events and heckle the members. With teleconferences, they are easier to weed out, Boustany said.
The convenience of picking up the phone may make it easier for people to participate in an era when busy schedules and perhaps apathy or disgust with Congress may keep voters from engaging in a nation where fewer than 1 in 5 people approves of the job Congress is doing.
All this means the odds are that most people in the U.S. won’t get the chance to interrogate their lawmakers in person during Congress’ summer break, despite a series of hot issues on Capitol Hill, including immigration, the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, the IRS’ targeting of conservative political groups and the Justice Department’s seizure of media outlets’ telephone records.
“You have all this and members of Congress have effectively stopped doing town hall meetings,” says Matt Kibbe, president of the tea-party organizer Freedomworks. “I find quite remarkable that they are unwilling to meet with their customers.”
Grassley is a big exception.
He’s diligently continued holding frequent in-person town hall meetings, annually meeting his promise to visit each of Iowa’s 99 counties despite being the target of angry conservatives in 2009 during the health care debate and despite the logistical challenges.
Grassley insisted there’s still value in the traditional way, calling the give-and-take with constituents the glue that binds him to them.
“I can read their letters and talk to them on the phone. But you don’t fully understand,” he said last Wednesday. “Here, I look them in the eye. They look me in the eye. It’s more full communication.”
With that, he headed out the Fort Dodge library door, headed to his fourth town hall of the day. And it was only 1 p.m.