- Associated Press - Sunday, September 4, 2011

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) Too much yelling, not enough listening.

Facing organized, often raucous confrontations at political events, some members of Congress this summer abandoned the longtime tradition of open meetings with the folks back home.

It was goodbye to one of the few remaining opportunities for voters and lawmakers to talk face to face.

Some cited security in the aftermath of the shooting that severely wounded Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a meet-and-greet event in January. Others blamed grass-roots groups for commandeering the town halls. Still others opted for smaller, sometimes private or paid events.

Whatever the explanation, the dearth of meetings sparked criticism that lawmakers were dodging their constituents when Congress is held in such low regard. A recent Associated Press-GFK poll showed 87 percent of Americans disapprove of lawmakers’ job performance.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, described the trend as disappointing.

“I think [the town-hall meeting] is one of the fundamentals of our government process, our democratic process meeting with people and responding to them,” said Mr. McCain, who held six town-hall meetings this summer, including one in Tucson, where the Giffords shooting occurred.

While Mr. McCain said he understood the desire to avoid the “despicable” people who disrupt town halls, he said the decision to avoid them lets “those bad people win.”

According to CQ-Roll Call, which kept a count, lawmakers held a little more than 500 town halls this summer, compared with more than 650 in 2009, when the rancor over President Obama’s health care overhaul turned some events into shouting matches. This summer’s recess began immediately after a down-to-the-wire, fiercely partisan debate on raising the debt limit and cutting spending.

The actual number of members holding the meetings dropped just slightly, from 164 to 154. It was not clear, however, if those numbers included pay-to-attend meetings that drew constituent ire in some states.

Protesters swarmed a $10-a-plate luncheon in Duluth, Minn., for freshman Republican Rep. Chip Cravaak to complain that his only two free town halls were in remote, rural areas. Mr. Cravaak, who has said he got into politics because his predecessor, Rep. James L. Oberstar, refused to meet with him about the health care law, then held a town hall in Duluth.

More than 200 people showed up for what ended up being a sometimes contentious hourlong discussion with the lawmaker.

“If nothing else, we gave them a voice, and I heard them, and I listened to them,” Mr. Cravaack said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi held some town halls in California, but was heckled by those upset about the debt-ceiling deal. When she argued that Democrats fended off cuts to entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, she was loudly chided for voting for “that Satan sandwich” and called a “sellout.”

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan held standing-room-only town halls in the spring while the federal budget debate raged, and faced occasional heckling. This summer, while supporters urged the Wisconsin Republican to run for president, he held only one town hall - by telephone, with only a few hours’ advance notice to constituents.

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