Democrats are making a predictable stink over the fact that some Republican congressmen are eschewing "town hall" meetings this summer in favor of what the Politico website calls "pay-per-view" meetings. A grand total of three Republicans, most notably Rep. Paul Ryan of budget fame, are reportedly restricting their appearances to fundraisers or, in Ryan's case, private "office hours" instead of mass meetings. Writing for Politico, Reid J. Epstein puts motives in the Republicans' mouths, noting that by "outsourcing" their public appearances to "third parties" (no irony intended), GOP pols can "eliminate most of the riffraff while still -- in some cases -- allowing reporters and TV cameras for a positive local news story."
I don't doubt that more Republicans would like to avoid encounters with the organized hecklers that MoveOn and other Democratic sympathizers are sending to "town halls," and it's only natural for Democrats to call Republicans chickens under the circumstances. The worse charge, I'd think, is that these Republicans and their sponsors are charging admission for access, but I'm not sure how different the events under discussion are from the pay-per-plate fundraisers staged by both Democrats and Republicans. However they spin it, Democrats will say that Republicans in general -- on the evidence of three -- are afraid to face the people. But I stand by my objections to "town hall" meetings raised last week. As indicated by reports of "town halls" urging representatives not to compromise or seek middle ground, these events are probably not as representative as either major party would like to claim. While such meetings are theoretically open to anyone, they are most likely either to be packed with the "base" of the incumbent's party or organized hecklers from the opposition. Any invitational event is likely to reproduce the partisan divisions of the given place and the activist or apathetic tendencies of the population. Someone who doesn't vote because he sees no meaningful choice available, for instance, is unlikely to attend a "town hall," while the most dedicated partisans are probably most likely to do so. The most representative gathering a representative can face would be the one most randomly generated and thus most likely to include nonpartisan citizens. If the choice facing congressmen was between this kind of meeting and "pay-per-view" fundraisers, our preference should be obvious. But the actual choice is between fundraisers and subjecting yourself to organized partisan heckling -- and given our current partisan environment, I wouldn't be surprised to find Democrats choosing the same option as these three wicked Republicans.