Chants of “Obama lies/Grandma dies” and “Health care now” that resounded from raucous town hall meetings four years ago are just a memory as members of the Iowa congressional delegation wrap up their summer recess meetings with constituents.
One lasting impact of those turbulent town hall meetings, according to Eastern Iowa U.S. Reps. Dave Loebsack and Bruce Braley, is that gun violence, sequestration and larger districts have caused them to change how they interact with constituents.
“Town hall meetings have more potential for things, you know, to get the way they were in 2009,” said Loebsack, who now represents Iowa’s 2nd District, and has held several meetings on veterans’ issues.
However, he and Braley reject suggestions they’ve adopted a format of single-topic meetings to control debate.
That’s not the way it feels to Giora Neta of Cedar Rapids. He circulated a handmade flyer at an Americans for Prosperity meeting encouraging people to call Braley’s office to request a town-hall meeting where people could talk about any concern.
When he called, Neta was asked what he would like to talk about.
“So I gave them five,” including Obamacare, the attack on American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, and the IRS investigation of conservative political action groups, he said.
Members of Congress “are spending too much time with interest groups and raising money,” Neta said. “For five weeks (Braley) skips Cedar Rapids, the biggest city in his district.”
Braley has focused his meetings — including one on a Cedar Rapids farm — on the farm bill and programs to help young farmers. He rejected the idea he hasn’t spent enough time interacting with constituents in the 20-county northeast Iowa district.
There are fewer town hall meetings because of the “profound impact that the shooting of Gabby Giffords had on this whole conversation,” Braley said after a campaign event in Tipton.
Giffords is the Arizona congresswoman who was shot in 2011 when a gunman opened fire at a Tucson shopping center where she was meeting with constituents. Giffords and 12 others were injured. Six people were killed.
The Waterloo Democrat also cited “dramatic cuts” to congressional office budgets because of sequestration.
“There are fewer resources to put together town hall meetings in all parts of your district,” he said. Making arrangements takes time and sometimes there are costs associated with the meetings. “You have to factor all of those things into your decision.”
Loebsack agreed “it’s logistics as much as anything.”
It’s a challenge to get around a district that stretches from the Mississippi River more than halfway across southern Iowa to Clark and Decatur counties and north to Johnson, Cedar and Clinton counties.
“I have 24 counties now, 763,000 people as opposed to 625,000,” the Iowa City Democrat said. “I have that many more businesses, that many more farms, that many more schools, that many more small towns that I have to get to and visit.”
His single-topic round-table discussions and business visits don’t limit public input, Loebsack said. Sometimes, he said, they are more productive than town hall meetings.
Participants’ issues “are generally more focused so I can go to a lot of places where there are specific sets of issues and we can talk in detail about those issues,” Loebsack said. “But I will tell you that when I go to small business, the Affordable Care Act comes up. When I go to larger business, it comes up. So I’m dealing with the issues of the day.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, who visits all 99 counties every year, wants Iowans to bring any and all concerns to his town hall meetings.
Since 2009, his August meetings “have been very general and not raucous,” but no less far-ranging, the Iowa Republican said.
After a recent meeting in Ida Grove, the Iowa Republican tweeted: “47 ppl Topics:Fed/debt, Obamacare, farm bill, Syria, Sequester, IRS, Benghazi, F & F, Imm, Judges, Congress underObamacare.”
That’s the way it should be, said Grassley, who according to Heard on the Hill, Roll Call’s gossip blog, had the eighth most town hall meetings among members of Congress as of Aug. 26.
“It would be presumptive of me to think I know the most important thing on people’s minds,” he said.
Sen. Tom Harkin, who spent August 2009 visiting community health centers where crowds were mostly supportive of health care reform, prefers events focusing on one topic or issue as opposed to town hall meetings.
Harkin, according to staff, views August as a time to meet with Iowans to discuss his legislative priorities for the upcoming session and how these policies will help create jobs and boost the economy.
“This August was no different,” said spokeswoman Kate Cyrul. “He hosted several events around the state to discuss efforts to promote early childhood education, increase disability employment, and strengthen Social Security.”
Iowans also had an opportunity to interact with the Iowa Democrat at the Iowa State Fair, she said.