After six months of petitioning the Utah federal delegation for in-person town halls, these are the words that I still hear the most from the people of Utah. Since January — with the pleasant exception of Rep. Chris Stewart, who has held two public events, and the unpleasant exception of Rep. Rob Bishop, who has not held a single event, virtual or otherwise – most of our representatives have opted for virtual “teletown halls” in lieu of public forums.
It cannot be denied that many of these phone events have been designed with the intention of evading constituents. For example, while Sen. Mike Lee’s office does at least advertise his events, and made changes after constituent feedback about the scheduling process, Sen. Orrin Hatch’s most recent event was a teletown hall held on July 13, with no advanced notice whatsoever.
This bleak picture is made even more disturbing when you consider what our representatives would do if left to their own devices. For months, grassroots groups have organized petitions, events, and letter-writing and calling campaigns to request town halls with all of our representatives in Congress. Their unwillingness to offer even this small public service begs the question: If we weren’t repeatedly asking, would they interact with us at all?
According to the Town Hall Project, 182 Members of Congress have not held a single in-person town hall this year. Forty-three of those 185 are members of the U.S. Senate, including prominent names from both sides of the aisle, such as Mark Warner, D-Va.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Chuck Schumer D-N.Y.; John Cornyn, R-Texas; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; and Mitch McConnell, R-Ken.
There are 11 states where neither U.S. Senator has held an in-person town hall: Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Wyoming, and of course, Utah. According to U.S. Census data, five of these 11 states rank in the top 10 most populous in our nation. None of these Americans are being given an opportunity to hear from the people who are supposedly sworn to serve them.
It’s clear that Congress has an accountability problem, in both chambers. So, to Sen. Hatch, president pro-tempore of the Senate, a man who makes over $193,000 per year of taxpayer money, I pose this question: Why don’t you lead the way?
Who could be better to lead the charge toward accountability than a man who has served for 40 years? A man who surely understands that the least he can do for the people of Utah – the state that has given him so much of what he has today – is spend one hour with them in person, even if it’s unpleasant?
The excuse our representatives use is that they don’t want to be yelled at by constituents. There’s certainly no way to guarantee that everyone speaks politely. But I’ll tell you this, Sen. Hatch: I go to my job every day, a job where I serve the public while making a fraction of your salary, and I get yelled at all the time. Usually, I’m being yelled at for things I can’t control. If I can do it, so can you – especially when the reason people are yelling at you is because they are scared for their lives.
You speak of a return to civility, but you must not forget that respect is earned. The powerful demanding courtesy from the powerless is not justice, and you cannot expect silence as you make decisions that could destroy our lives. You may not like what we say, but you should listen anyway. Respect your constituents. Hold a town hall.
Madalena McNeil is a community organizer and executive director of Utahns Speak Out.