As Health Care Issue Heats Up, Congressmen Turn to Tele-Townhall Meetings--Where They Control Audience

By Matt Cover | August 5, 2009 | 6:07 PM EDT

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.)

( – Members of Congress are increasingly turning to virtual townhall meetings--conducted by telephone--in an effort to reach more constituents while avoiding the potential that informational meetings might be disrupted by angry and persistent questioners or protesters.

One advantage to these telephone townhalls is that the Member of Congress controls the audience and the questioning.
As lawmakers head home for the August recess to meet with constituents, the contentious health care issue awaits them, and some are opting to conduct their townhall meetings over a telephone line rather than in an actual hall where their constituents can see them, speak directly to them, ask repeated followup questions--and shout unsolicited commentary from the back of the room.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) is using a tele-town hall meeting in her only scheduled interaction with constituents, and various other lawmakers from both parties have held the live mass teleconferences lately, focusing largely on health care.
Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), whose district encompasses nearly one-third of the large western state, held a tele-town hall meeting with reporters and constituents July 24, saying it provides him with immediate feedback while in Washington.
“These ‘virtual’ town hall meetings have been a very useful way to get immediate feedback from my constituents when my work as a Congressman keeps me from being home in Idaho,” Minnick said in a statement announcing the event.

Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho)

Steve Patterson, president of Broadnet, the nation’s largest town hall provider who has done tele-town hall meeting for political clients ranging from Newt Gingrich to President Obama told that unlike in a normal conference call, during a tele-townhall, your congressman calls you.
“Whether it’s in politics or the market, our customers describe who their audience is to us by saying ‘here’s a list of the people we want involved in our conversation’ and in pretty short order we take that list, and we send them a recorded message with an invitation to stay on the phone to be part of a conversation,” Patterson said.
The calls usually last about an hour and much like a real town hall meeting include a live opening statement and a question and answer session with the hosting politician.
“It’s usually an hour-long event which starts with some opening comments from the host, and there’s an invitation to raise your hand – virtually – to more or less say that you have a question,” Patterson said.
“Generally what happens [next] is people find out what that question’s going to be and then the host, in the course of an hour selects anywhere between five and twenty questions,” he explained.
Politicians also have the option of leaving a voicemail number for constituents and conducting a telephone poll to glean more information from the audio audience.
Patterson said that the ability to participate in a discussion is what makes the tele-town hall format so popular with the public, saying that the more popular the host, the more people who participate.
“There’s no question that what creates the audience sizes that we create is predicated mostly on the fact that we give people an opportunity to just answer the phone and participate. This product is for anyone who has about 5- or 10,000 people and they want to communicate with them in an effective way.”
Patterson said that politicians are attracted to the format, because constituents like it because it is far more convenient for them than a traditional town hall meeting, especially for those who wouldn’t otherwise get access to elected representatives.
“What makes it attractive to them [politicians] is that it is attractive to constituents,” he explained. “Constituents truly do have an interest in what’s going on in government, what their politicians are representing, and who they are.
“But it’s difficult to participate in many other venues; it’s really not feasible for a politically motivated or interested person to lobby their congressman. They’re not going to Washington, D.C., and sit outside their office,” Patterson added.
“If you have a family it’s difficult to show up at a conventional town hall meeting when you can participate in a dialogue from the comfort of your home. That’s relevant,” Patterson said.
“It’s not a political rally – it’s a conversation with constituents,” he said.
The tele-town hall format is quickly becoming a “hub” of communications for members of Congress, Patterson said, as Washington eschews older practices in favor of new methods and new technologies.
“Politically, this has become for sure now one of the spokes of the political wheel, and in some cases, it’s becoming the hub, because it is one of the few ways that you can have direct access and direct conversation with somebody,” he said.
“When you say that we’re doing over half of the Congress and from the president down, this is why not only they adopted, [but] why they accepted technology in Washington,” Patterson added.