Four years after August town hall meetings devolved into shouting matches, fistfights and arrests, many members of Congress will return home for recess this week to find the battle has once again come to them, whether they host a town hall or not.
From immigration reform to Obamacare repeal, citizens’ groups are planning to make themselves heard over the coming month of congressional recess, with phone-call campaigns, rallies and good old town-hall crashers, though few expect those events to rise to the level of discord that the nation endured in 2009. In each case, the goal is not only to pressure lawmakers, but also to grab headlines and nightly news coverage in the slow news cycles of late summer.
On Monday, Organizing for Action (OFA), a nonprofit organization created this year to push forward the White House’s policy initiatives, will hold a national day of action urging citizens to support comprehensive immigration reform. Volunteers will be handing out flyers, hosting rallies and even posting their homes’ addresses online to stage call-ins to their Congress members. “Wherever these Congressmen will put themselves in a position to talk to the public, we’ll have folks there. That just frankly doesn’t happen as often anymore,” says Jon Carson, executive director for OFA. “An effective way to do it when you don’t have a town hall is to go flyering, combined with social media.”
And even if legislators host a town hall in August, outside groups still face the challenge of mobilizing its members to attend. “In any organization only a small fraction are actually going to walk outside and go somewhere,” says Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which advocates for lower immigration levels. “Most of them are doing things like the phone calls and e-mails.”
Still NumbersUSA plans on taking a few cues from the old playbook, circulating among its 2 million members a list of 50 town-hall events targeting 22 House Republicans over the next three days. “Our game plan is to hold the Republicans because almost all of them are of the mind at the moment that they don’t want to have to vote on amnesty this fall,” says Beck. “So the job of our activists is to help reassure them that that’s the right thing to do.”
On Friday, Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration-reform group, was arrested on Capitol Hill with dozens of others demanding the House take action. “You can see there’s a desperation,” says Beck. “They are kind of like the Tea Party activists of ’09.”
Mi Familia Vota, a national Latino pro-immigration nonprofit, has also created a list of targeted town halls, with hopes of crashing many of the same events as NumbersUSA. In addition, Mi Familia Vota, in partnership with the Alliance for Citizenship, will launch over 70 community canvassing efforts, voter-registration drives, local campaigns to engage business, faith-based initiatives, and citizenship-assistance and information sessions. Clarissa Martínez of the National Council of La Raza, which supports legalization of all unauthorized immigrants, told USA Today that a coalition of groups would host 360 different events in 52 congressional districts during the recess.
While Carson and Beck noted that fewer Congress members are willing to host town halls, neither denied their effectiveness. Carson raised Paul Ryan‘s town hall two weeks ago in Racine, Wis., where he revealed to a crowd of over 300 at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church the House plan on immigration reform. He said there would be a series of bills on border security, interior enforcement, visa tracking and workplace verification, and a path to legalization for the undocumented, “tentatively” scheduled for a vote in October.
“I think any opportunity for a grassroots activist to be in front of the person who represents them in Washington is highly effective,” says Whitney Neal, grassroots coordinator for FreedomWorks, which organized protests at town halls nationwide in 2009 to oppose Obamacare. The group is creating a town-hall calendar so activists can ask their Representatives to defund the bill.
“They are representing the people,” says Neal. “If they don’t go back home and crowd-source the issues, thoughts and feelings of their constituents, what are they doing in Washington?”