CARBONDALE — When the late Sen. Paul Simon used to hold town hall meetings, he would sit at the front of a room with a notepad, introduce himself and ask constituents what was on their minds.
John Shaw, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said this method helped Simon understand the real-world consequences of problems — and it often led to measurable change for ordinary people.
“Apparently at one town hall meeting, someone told him that, I don’t know if it was Medicaid or Medicare, did not pay for false teeth … so he went back to D.C. and had his staff say, ‘How can this be possible, that this is not an essential service?’” Shaw said, adding that Simon eventually got the rule changed.
Shaw believes that congressional town halls are an important part of America’s democracy and that they have been put to the test by social media and intensifying political polarization.
The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute recently released a report on how to improve town hall meetings as part of the University Project for Bipartisan Collaboration for the Lugar Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank.
After conducting interviews with lawmakers and political scientists, Shaw concluded that there is a clear problem with town halls in the U.S.
“It’s not 100 percent clear we’re going to be able to solve it, because I think town hall meetings have now become sort of the vehicle of choice by which people from both the right and the left use as expressing discontent,” Shaw said.
The report, which was sent July 4 to Illinois’ 18 U.S. representatives and U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, outlines ways to make town hall meetings more civil and constructive, “rather than just highly staged, contentious shouting matches, which sometimes occurs,” Shaw said.
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Shaw said partisan activist groups use town halls as an opportunity to attack lawmakers and to try to stage embarrassing moments and capture them on camera. In response, lawmakers have turned to virtual town hall meetings with carefully selected questions.
“We’re not urging that people come to town hall meetings and not say what’s on their mind and not try to express what concerns and anger they have — and anger is not an inappropriate emotion to explain, but you can be angry and also civil, and you can strongly disagree with policy and make that point very firmly without trying to embarrass people or humiliate people. Because when you do that, what we’re in danger of is having fewer and fewer town hall meetings, and what we’re trying to warn against is an era in which no one wants to meet the public,” Shaw said.
The recommendations ask that town halls be reimagined as listening and learning sessions, and they call for a nonpartisan moderator to lead the discussion and set the tone for civility. Town halls are expected to be widely advertised and streamed online whenever possible. The policymaker is allowed only a brief opening statement.
“It falls on (lawmakers) to alter their behaviors too, because in some of the research I did, I learned that in some town hall meetings you have this kind of contrived event in which they spend the first 10 minutes on the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem and the prayer, and in describing the rules, and the policymaker speaks for 10 minutes with their talking points, and they open it up for three questions and run out the back door. And that’s a fake town hall meeting, that’s not a real one,” Shaw said.
Participants are asked to tell personal stories rather than recite talking points prepared by advocacy groups.
“We’re also urging the public to come to these meetings like they would for a professional meeting in which they’re prepared, and to treat the policymaker the way they would treat a professional in a work context, where you can have disagreements, you can have strongly held disagreements, but you don’t resort to shouting and yelling and trying to embarrass them,” Shaw said.
The Lugar Center has reviewed the report and has called on Shaw to participate on a task force in order to expand it into a national program. Shaw also plans to look into how the report might be useful for the Illinois General Assembly.
The full set of recommendations can be read online at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute website.