CEDAR RAPIDS — Whether they are “resistance rallies” or an integral part of representative government, congressional town hall meetings may not reflect majority opinion and are unlikely to change any minds, according to a pair of Iowa political scientists.
“On the one hand, I think that elected officials have a duty to meet with their constituents,” University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle said.
On the other hand, he said, many recent town hall meetings have been little more than shouting matches that limited the elected officials’ ability to answer questions.
“When that happens, most of the benefits of such town hall meetings are lost,” Hagle said. “Sometimes, a little shouting can be useful to show the depth of feelings, but sustained shouting and a general lack of decorum isn’t useful.”
Even those members of Congress who are willing to take hard questions and unfavorable feedback may be reluctant to have forums if they turn into shouting matches, he said.
“Even if an elected official handles the shouting and such well, it still can make the official look bad,” Hagle said. Not holding meetings avoids the drama, which “might be seen as the lesser of two bad choices.”
Chris Larimer, who teaches political science at University of Northern Iowa, said research shows citizen input in town halls forums is unlikely to change the mind of an elected official. It’s just as unlikely that an elected official’s answers will change minds.
If a member of Congress is willing to put up with the abuse, it can “reinforce the image of an elected official as transparent and available,” Larimer said. For Sen. Chuck Grassley, who has a meeting in every county every year, “it’s part of his image.”
Those who oppose Grassley probably don’t come away from his forum agreeing with him. And those who agree with Grassley, even if they don’t go to his meetings, “know he was available should they have any questions, and this likely reinforces their positive image of him,” Larimer said.
There are a variety of reasons members of Congress don’t do forums, Hagle said.
“Some just may not be that good at them,” he said. Some may be in “safe” districts where they think they are likely to get re-elected and don’t want to provide a forum for an organized resistance.
“Other elected officials who might be in a difficult district electorally might not want the bad publicity from a rough town hall meeting,” Hagle said.
Hagle can’t speak for 1st District Rep. Rod Blum or 4th District Rep. Steve King, both Republicans, “but an argument might be made that they could fit into those last two categories.”