- - Thursday, February 23, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Have you noticed that members of Congress are keen listeners? They love to listen to each other, and they love listening to the voices in the echo chamber. And, of course, they love to listen to the sound of their own voices. But when it comes to listening to their constituents, Congress could learn a thing or two from President Trump.

Mr. Trump throughout his campaign and now in the White House has honed his listening skills. Americans said — repeatedly — that we were sick of business as usual in Washington, D.C., that we wanted border security, that it was time to get rid of Obamacare and that the Supreme Court is of the utmost importance.

Mr. Trump not only listened, he heard us.

Make no mistake about it, Mr. Trump’s nominee choices and his entire agenda are the result of his astute listening skills.

If my phone calls this week and the emails I have received are any indication, Americans are tense and on edge. (That’s putting it mildly, actually.)

Why are emotions running so high right now? Why are so many on both sides of the aisle so anxious?

This tension boils down to an intense struggle over the status quo in Washington. For liberals, there is a strong desire to double down on the failures of the past administration. For conservatives, including tea party conservatives, there is a strong desire to dismantle and then reform everything that is wrong with Washington. The clash over the status quo and what comes next is the defining political question of our time.

On both sides of the aisle, there is a pervasive feeling that the Washington elites of both parties couldn’t care less about what we are saying.

Congress is on recess this week, and recess usually means more interaction with constituents and more engagements in forums and dialogues with constituents. Or, at least, that is what it has historically meant and what voters have come to expect.

In recent years, however, there has been a shift toward avoiding constituents. Since Obamacare was being debated in Congress, and then immediately following its passage, Americans were outraged by the government takeover of health care and voiced their opposition in town halls, town meetings, rallies, protests and other public events.

As members of Congress are prone to do, they learned the exact wrong lesson from the 2009 and 2010 town halls. Drawing on those experiences at town halls, Congress internalized the idea that it is better to duck and cover, avoid clashes with constituents and avoid interactions with constituents where they may ask difficult questions in a public forum. In other words: hide.

Allow me to offer some advice to Congress, based on the experiences I had eight years ago.

First, when members of Congress fail to show up, they simply reinforce the impression that Washington is full of elitists — in both parties — who do not care about those they represent even enough to meet with them and listen. Failing to hold town hall meetings will embolden the left, even as it depresses their own base supporters.

In 2009 and 2010, tea party supporters showed up at town halls around the country to make their voices heard. Congressmen and senators flipped out at the viral videos, and almost all of them stopped having town hall meetings.

Instead, they hid behind tele-town halls, where they control the environment and it is much more difficult to know how many attend and whether most of the questions and concerns are being fully addressed.

Mind you, there is a time and place for everything. While members of Congress are in D.C., tele-town halls, Facebook live and other online communications are effective means of communicating with constituencies. But when they are home — and especially when tensions in the country are so high — they need to show up and listen.

So, Congress — show up. Hold your events in larger locations. Stay longer, if needed, to let everyone have a few minutes to express themselves. If you are worried about paid protesters, then limit the attendance to your constituents.

Listen.

Answer the questions and concerns.

If you do not engage with your constituents, your unelected staff is going to continue to have to bear the brunt of this burden. That is not fair to your staff, and it is not fair to your constituency, and it is not what should happen in a representative democracy during a “district work week.”

I assure you, if you continue to hide, both the left and Tea Party Patriots will continue to publish mobile office hours and show up at times when your staff is trying to hold events to help your constituents with government services. If you have town halls and face your public, on the other hand, we can hear from you directly, and we won’t need to show up at mobile office hours.

Now, to those conservatives who are concerned about the left showing up and being the “tea party” or trying to hamper and harm our duly elected president’s agenda, the absolute best thing you can do is to show up.

For many members of Congress, the town hall forum has become a nuisance and irritation. But town halls enjoy a special place in American history and our experiment in self-government. When Alexis de Tocqueville surveyed America’s unique and defining institutions, he was struck by the importance of the local town meetings and town hall-type forums. In Democracy in America, he noted: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.”

Tocqueville was right, of course. Our tradition of town halls is actually an intrinsic part of our democratic institutions and our republic’s cherished commitment to individual liberty. Members of Congress who sit out on these forums are missing out on much more than an opportunity to see their constituents.

For activists and everyday Americans, Tea Party Patriots has crafted a series of resources to help you engage with your members of Congress this week and in the coming months. We offer talking points, social media ideas, sample letters, and other items to help you make your voice heard. And we are collecting information about congressional town halls and meetings across the country to make it even easier to show up and take part in these public discussions.

For members of Congress, however, we offer only a modest three-step program to engage with constituents: Show up. Listen. Repeat.

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