Monday, August 17, 2009

Sound and fury

"If you get hit, we will punch back twice as hard." —Deputy White House chief of staff Jim Messina in a town hall strategy briefing on August 6, with senior White House adviser David Axelrod, to Democrat Senators

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil." —Sarah Palin on Facebook

What good are town hall meetings, anyway? They seem to bring out the most extreme elements on both sides, heighten emotions, and sometimes end in fistcuffs and trips to jail or the emergency room. They are routinely scripted by organizers and disrupted by protesters. In this age of Internet communication, aren't town hall meetings antiquated?

I know from attending my share of school board, city council, and legislative hearings over the years that there is a public comment continuum. Legislative hearings are strictly controlled by the committee chair, time limits on testimony are enforced, and questions from committee members can resemble cross-examination at trial (indeed, many legislators have law degrees). School board and city council meetings are usually less formal to encourage citizen participation, but there are still time and parliamentary limits. These meetings all generally occur in capitols, school district offices, and city halls.

The public comment portion of legislative or Congressional town hall meetings out in the community tend to be the loosest type of exchanges, and most often attract members of the general public who are inexperienced at the niceties of addressing the chair or even speaking in public at all. When there are hot-button issues on the table, as with Minnesota's academic standards a few years ago, public funding for the Twins stadium, smoking bans, and the current health reform debate, these meetings attract the media, organized testimony and demonstrators, and often more heat than light.

Although certainly not effective as a workshop for crafting good public policy, public hearings and town hall meetings are a traditional and necessary component of our American experiment in self-government that is of the people, by the people, and for the people. There is something quintessentially American about an elected official, whether from the local school board or the United States Senate, standing up in front of a school gymnasium full of his constituents to receive both praise and brickbats.

As someone observed during one of yesterday's Sunday interview shows, some politicians may love President Obama's vision for health care, but they love getting reelected even more. Town hall meetings, e-mail, social networking, and talk radio are all ways that the hoi polloi are participating in the political process like never before. Witness Sarah Palin's use of Facebook:
One can hardly deny that Palin's reference to "death panels" was inflammatory. But another way of putting that is that it was vivid and attention-getting. Level-headed liberal commentators who favor more government in health care, including Slate's Mickey Kaus and the Washington Post's Charles Lane, have argued that the end-of-life provision in the bill is problematic--acknowledging in effect (and, in Kaus's case, in so many words) that Palin had a point.

"Palin Wins," Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2009

Although anyone can send an e-mail or write a letter, professional lobbyists and interest groups tend to drown out the voices of John and Jane Q. Public. Elected officials can become isolated in their Greek-columned worlds, especially in Washington, D.C. They have numerous procedural and security methods for preserving order at town hall meetings without stifling public comment. This face-to-face conduit between constituents and representatives is still needed in our republic, if we are to keep it.

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