Republican Congressman Bill Flores has announced another series of town-hall meetings that, strictly speaking, aren’t town-hall meetings at all but essentially Facebook video chats, complete with telephone and email access. While we don’t deny such formats bolster accessibility for shut-ins as well as folks living in rural stretches who can’t always drive to the larger towns where real town-hall meetings were once held, such formats short-circuit vital, face-to-face encounters where constituents give their congressman bits and pieces of their pent-up minds — pro and con, left and right, Republican and Democrat, good and bad.
A year has passed since we strongly criticized the congressman for resorting to these phone-in, sign-on opportunities to level questions at our representative. Yes, Flores is correct that the format on Facebook also allows folks to offer an array of live online comments (some more entertaining or edifying than questions and answers involving the congressman; too many, alas, are tasteless). And if one misses the show, he or she can go to the congressman’s social media and replay the session at his or her convenience. All well and good.
Yet it’s simply not constructive long-term for a democracy when a region’s congressman only shows up in person for “safe” events such as, say, the McLennan County Republican Club or the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, all while keeping the broader public at arm’s length. The congressman would do well to remember that town-hall meetings are not just a time for him to offer answers to earnest, respectful questions. It’s a time for him to seriously gauge areas of real discontent among his fellow residents. Some of his constituents might even offer solutions worthy of consideration — yes, even in the halls of power in Washington.
We well understand why more and more Republican lawmakers are ducking town-hall meetings, given increasing spectacles of corruption, sleaziness and partisanship in our nation’s capital and growing public outrage. Government today seems more like a three-ring circus with trick elephants and flaming loopholes than a forum of thoughtful policymaking. And if our congressman has a genuine town-hall meeting and folks show up with torches and pitchforks, it probably has less to do with them and more to do with the congressman’s policies and alliances.
A suggestion then in the spirit of compromise: The congressman would better serve his broader public (as a public servant, after all!) if he mixed his online, phone-in chats with occasional in-person listening tours. Get a damn good moderator — not some milquetoast but someone who can actually maintain order (including enforcing those time limits for comments) — plus a couple of sergeants-at-arms — and then bravely test the sentiments of your public. Local governmental entities do this regularly, offering constituents two or three minutes to sound off on any topic they choose. And elected city council members, county commissioners and school trustees can take it. We don’t promise such listening tours will be pleasant, but they would go a long way toward the heart and soul of what a vibrant republic is all about. Who knows? Flores might even be convinced to carry the ball for his team — and we don’t mean just Republican Party membership.