It’s been a rough few months for some members of Congress. Ever since the election of Donald Trump, senators and representatives have been heckled and shouted down at town hall meetings in their home states and districts, most recently during the run-up to the vote on House Speaker Paul Ryan’s doomed bill to replace “Obamacare.”
The raucous gatherings are not unlike the staged tea party rallies that Democrats faced ahead of the midterm elections in 2010, but this time around voters have targeted Republicans, with many voicing their displeasure with the GOP’s agenda on immigration and other issues — but also for Republicans’ failure to deliver on their campaign promises. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who did as much as anyone to politicize the Environmental Protection Agency and President Barack Obama’s clean energy policies all throughout the last administration, got an earful from a constituent in Kentucky about lost coal mining jobs at a recent town hall. Interestingly, in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, McConnell was one of the first to backpedal about the impact of Obama’s regulations on the coal industry and admitted that coal jobs aren’t coming back — not even for all the steel in China.
Even Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame after shouting “You lie!” at Obama during a speech to Congress in 2009, got a taste of his own medicine after voters shouted the same phrase back at him during a town hall last week in Graniteville.
It hasn’t been just federal lawmakers who have endured the wrath of voters. Here in Frederick County, state Sen. Michael Hough faced down an angry gaggle in a town hall where he offered up a dissembling defense of an ethics bill that he introduced during the General Assembly. Hough championed his bill as a better alternative to one that was requested by County Executive Jan Gardner and the County Council, but voters weren’t having it. They seemed to recognize a poison pill when they saw one.
Some lawmakers have decided against hosting town halls altogether, with many claiming that they have been co-opted by agitators. GOP Congressman Alex Mooney — who fled Maryland in 2013 to “live in freedom” in West Virginia, where voters promptly awarded him one of that state’s three seats in Congress — bailed out early from a reception he attended in March with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, afterward dismissing the voters he saw there as “professionally trained radicalists.”
But lawmakers who have chickened out of town hall meetings have not been immune from criticism. Constituents of U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte hung “missing” signs up all over his Virginia district after he opted not to host any events.
Lawmakers have begun fighting back in other ways, too — by making those folks who show up prove that they’re constituents. According to a recent AP report, Texas Rep. John Culberson is requiring that those attending his town bring utility bills or some other proof of ID.
By resorting to stunts like this, lawmakers are demonstrating another kind of proof — how deeply out of touch they actually are with the American electorate. For lawmakers to demand proof-of-residency requirements from constituents is absolutely hypocritical when they themselves accept vast sums of campaign money from individuals and groups outside their districts and are the indirect beneficiaries of dizzying sums of money spent by “super PACs” and other organizations that don’t even have to disclose who funds them.
When Mooney announced a run for Congress in West Virginia in 2013, he’d been living in the state’s Eastern Panhandle for only a few months, but it wasn’t West Virginians who were helping to pay for his run — most of his campaign donations came from Maryland, Florida, California, Texas and Washington, D.C. — just a little over 2 percent of his overall donations came from West Virginians. Out-of-state funds also helped fuel Mooney’s win over Republican John Derr in Frederick County in 1998.
Meanwhile, in the special election to fill the 6th District House seat in Georgia made vacant by the appointment of Tom Price to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Democratic contender Jon Ossoff has raised $8.3 million in three months — 95 percent from donors outside his district and 80 percent from outside the state, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
And “dark money” groups, which don’t require donor disclosure and which have no limits on how much they can receive, spent at record levels in 2016. During the 2016 election, the National Rifle Association spent more than $33.6 million. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent almost $30 million, while the Koch brothers-supported Americans for Prosperity spent almost $14 million.
So we should be asking just how our elected representatives’ shutting their own constituents out of public meetings even as they troll for private money from big, out-of-state players even begins to resemble representative government.
Americans across the political spectrum have become deeply dissatisfied with their government and with the direction the country appears headed in, with its misplaced priorities and with their elected leaders’ abject failure at making any serious effort toward solving the country’s most intractable problems. You’d think the election of an outsider and political neophyte to the highest office in the land might have served as some measure of the degree of their discontent. But for lawmakers to not be able to take voters raising their voices at them in order to be heard, it seems they still aren’t getting the message.