February 20, 2017
Recess for members of the U.S. Congress typically means going home and meeting with constituents, often in a town hall setting.
But this year’s Presidents Day recess, which began Saturday and runs through Feb. 26, is proving anything but typical for many representatives after a chaotic and controversial first month in office for President Donald Trump.
That’s especially true for members of the president’s own party – both across the country and locally.
Not one of the six local Republican congressmen in the Philadelphia region has plans to hold traditional town halls with constituents.
And none of them – Patrick Meehan, Brian Fitzpatrick and Ryan Costello in Pennsylvania; Frank LoBiondo, Tom MacArthur and Christopher Smith in New Jersey – appear to have scheduled face-to-face gatherings with the public.
That local Republicans are avoiding such direct interaction isn't all that surprising, according to J. Wesley Leckrone, an associate professor of political science at Widener University. Many in Congress took note when protests erupted at town halls over health care reform back in 2009.
"I think some people learned a lesson there, that these town halls can get out of control," Leckrone said. "You might be better off taking the heat of not having a town hall than you would be of having the negative exposure that comes from having a negative town hall."
While the volume of constituent contact is also up for House Democrats and there is long-term concern among establishment party members, Republican members of Congress particularly are under siege – some of it grassroots, some loosely organized.
A professional Democratic organizer who spoke anonymously has seen an influx of new volunteers post-Trump. But the proof of the response will be if newly energized voters can carry through by raising money and turning out more voters, he added.
"A lot of Republicans, right now, are scratching their heads ... Sometimes, it makes sense to lay low to see how things are going to play out before you go all-in or decide to challenge the party." – J. Wesley Leckrone, associate professor, Widener University
Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, recently claimed – without offering proof — that bused-in agitators disrupted a town hall. And White House press secretary Sean Spicer has claimed, minus evidence, that protesters have been paid.
But many of the protests around the country and the region are organized around the principles promoted by a group called Indivisible, whose members identify as former staffers of Congressional Democrats.
Indivisible has modeled its confrontation tactics and loose organizational plan on the Tea Party, mentioning the diffuse right-wing group and its tactics 22 times in its own organizing handbook.
In reaction, House Republicans held a closed-door meeting February 7 to discuss how to shield themselves and their staffs, according to Politico. Republicans nationally and locally have responded by keeping constituents at arm's-length, many substituting phone-in town hall meetings for the traditional town hall, and avoiding public appearances.
One local member of the House, MacArthur, who represents Burlington and Ocean counties, has flatly said he will not hold a traditional town hall in the current climate.
Activists have responded by planning their own town hall in his district at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the DeMasi Middle School in Marlton, even though it is clear MacArthur will not attend. The event is sponsored by NJ Citizen Action and the South Jersey Chapter of NOW.
Similar shadow town halls is Smith at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Monmouth County Library on Symmes Road in Manalapan, with a similar event is aimed at Costello at 1 p.m. Saturday at Phoenixville High School.
And MoveOn.org is hosting an Affordable Care Act Forum in Meehan's 7th Congressional District at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Delaware County in Media.
While Philly-area Republican members of Congress have adopted a duck-and-cover approach, fellow Republican Leonard Lance of New Jersey offers a stark contrast.
Lance is holding two town hall meetings next week at a community college in his central New Jersey district.
The two meetings together will accommodate 1,800 ticketed constituents in the main college auditorium, plus another few hundred in an overflow area. They will be Lance’s 41st and 42nd town halls since winning the seat in 2009.
Lance is a five-term representative of New Jersey’s 7th District, which covers parts of six counties.
Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at New Jersey’s Montclair State University, said Lance can’t afford to be seen as shutting out constituents, even those who don’t support him. That’s because the 7th is the only Congressional district in New Jersey not considered a "lock" for the incumbent, said Harrison.
And because the remaining New Jersey Republican members of Congress represent “safe” districts, they see no upside to engaging with angry constituents, she added. "They are hoping it blows over," she said.
The situation is similar in Southeastern Pennsylvania, where only freshman Fitzpatrick sits in a district considered competitive. Ducking buys the congressmen time to see how many of the concerns brought by Trump's election will play out, Leckrone said.
"A lot of Republicans, right now, are scratching their heads and not quite sure whether Donald Trump is the future of the Republican party or an aberration," Leckrone said. "Sometimes, it makes sense to lay low to see how things are going to play out before you go all-in or decide to challenge the party."
Lance spokesman John M. Byers acknowledged there is a risk to meeting constituents in-person, but explained the politician enjoys “the give-and-take” of live town halls.
“These are very polarizing times,” Byers conceded, adding tone, language and consideration are all concerns during a live event.
Lance’s office has limited attendance to constituents based on their addresses, but has not vetted questions, according to Byers.
Meanwhile, calls, letters, and faxes have continued to flood the offices of Philadelphia-area Republican members of the House. Congressmen routinely face protests at their district offices.
Calls for open town halls are central to the protests, a tactic outlined by Indivisible. There are also online petitions circulating aimed at LoBiondo (just a few signatures) and MacArthur (about 250 signatures) and Smith (about 1,200 signatures.)
The calls and protests are similar to the “Tuesdays with Toomey” gatherings that have dogged U.S. Sen. Patrick Toomey since November. Rallies outside his Center City office have grown significantly since the election.
Toomey responded Thursday by holding a "tele-town hall" – with just 90 minutes' notice to constituents and the media.
Rather than placating critics, the Pennsylvania senator's telephone ploy appears to have further enraged opposition constituents, based on online comments.
"As many of you likely heard, Toomey hosted a last-minute telephone town hall yesterday. If you missed it, don't worry, he just repeated a lot of the same GOP talking points and referred to 'outside groups' being the reason his phone lines are still jammed up," read one post on TuesdayswithToomey on Facebook.
MoveOn.org will hold a protest at Toomey's Philadelphia office at 12:20 p.m. Tuesday to demand a town hall. And a town hall "with or without" Toomey is set for Tuesday in Allentown, less than 10 miles from the senator's hometown of Breinigsville, Lehigh County.
PhillyVoice contacted the offices of the six local Republican congressmen to ask if they had plans to interact with voters during their recess this week. Some responded, others didn't.
Costello, a West Chester resident, was just re-elected to his second term in the 6th Congressional District, which includes parts of Chester, Montgomery, Berks and Lebanon counties. He has scheduled two telephone town halls during the recess. The first will occur at 2 p.m. Wednesday; the second at 7 p.m. Thursday. Constituents can sign up here.
Costello's communication director, Natalie Gillam, did not respond to an email asking why Costello opted for a pair of telephone town halls instead of a traditional, face-to-face forum.
Meehan is a four-term congressman in the 7th Congressional District, consists of most of Delaware County and parts of Chester, Montgomery, Berks and Lancaster counties. A resident of Drexel Hill, Delaware County, he recently joined his fellow Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee in voting to deny an opportunity to examine Trump's returns via a rarely invoked 1924 law.
Meehan does not have town halls — in any form — scheduled for the recess. But his web site includes a sign-up form for residents wishing to take part in a telephone town hall. His communications director, John Elizandro, says Meehan holds those forums regularly.
"He continues to engage with his constituents in a variety of formats — from in-person meetings to business visits to conference calls to telephone town hall meetings to written and email correspondence," Elizandro wrote in an email. "Decisions about moving forward with a telephone town hall are subject to the always-changing vote schedule here in D.C. and are typically made at the last minute."
Elizandro did not respond to a follow-up inquiry asking why Meehan is conducting telephone town halls instead of meeting constituents in person.
Back in 2011, he held five face-to face town halls in just one day. Meehan had said then, “Town hall meetings are a great way to hear from my constituents - to listen to their concerns, answer questions, and hear what issues are on their mind."
The freshman Fitzpatrick succeeded his brother, Mike, as representative in the 8th Congressional District, comprising Bucks County and parts of Montgomery County. He plans to hold a telephone town hall sometime during the recess, according to a district spokesman. But details have not been announced.
He also held a telephone town hall earlier this year and has commenced a tour of 100 local businesses to hear the concerns of their leaders and employees. He also launched a health care listening tour that will include meetings with health care professionals and asks constituents to share their thoughts on health care reform through his website.
His office did not respond to an inquiry asking why he opted for a telephone town hall over the traditional format.
Terri Brantley, a voter in the Eighth, said she's contacted Fitzpatrick's office but, despite her attempts to get a response. "They're scared to death. Suddenly, accountability is required and they don't have the means to deal," she said.
LoBiondo represents the 2nd Congressional District of New Jersey, which includes all of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem counties and parts of Camden, Gloucester, Ocean and Burlington counties.
A congressman since 1995, he does not appear to have any open public forums scheduled with constituents during the recess. His office did not respond to email or repeated calls for comment.
Caren Fitzpatrick, an Atlantic County Democrat who in the past supported LoBiondo, a Republican, though not in the last two contests, is the face of the newly riled progressive voter: She is running for local office and pressuring the representative.
She said it took her four calls to get a call back from LoBiondo's office about a constituent meeting. "He is not listening," she said.
Fed up with feeling unheard and offended by a sexist online posting by an Atlantic County Republican official about the post-Trump women's March on Washington, she is now running for a seat as a freeholder while still pressing for face-to-face meetings with LoBiondo.
MacArthur was re-elected in November to a second term in the 3rd Congressional District, comprising much of Ocean and Burlington counties.
His communications director, Camille Gallo, said “MacArthur has always welcomed all views and opinions at his public events. Unfortunately, recent town hall meetings across the country have devolved into unproductive shouting matches, with highly-organized, partisan special interest groups effectively hijacking the forums, crowding out local residents.”
“Congressman MacArthur will continue to host well-attended and informative tele-town hall meetings," she said. "He fully intends to resume in-person town halls but will not be baited by outside groups.”
Gallo pointed out that MacArthur, held a “tele-town meeting” last week. His last open forum with constituents was October 24 in Delran, Burlington County, a town that elects Democrats at the local level, she said.
That does not suit Holly Kline of Marlton, a Democrat who has become a political activist since the election of Trump. "So far, we haven't had any response beyond, 'I'll pass your comments on to the congressman.' "
Since 1981, Smith has represented the 4th Congressional District, which consists of a small portion of Mercer County, much of Monmouth County and part of Ocean County.
His office did not respond to email or repeated calls about his plans for the recess. He does not appear to have any open public forums scheduled with constituents.
Critics claim Smith has never once held an open town hall in his more than 30 years in Congress.