MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
(Soundbite of music)
August recess and the livin' is easy, when Congress goes home for a little rest and relaxation - and maybe a nice town hall meeting with the constituents.
(Soundbite of town hall meeting)
Unidentified Man #1: One day, God's going to stand before you and he's going to judge you and the rest of your damned cronies up on the Hill.
(Soundbite of applause)
SIEGEL: This summer, it's the constituents that are jumping and many members of Congress, especially those in swing districts, have been working mightily to avoid getting caught in front of an angry town hall.
NPR's Martin Kaste reports.
MARTIN KASTE: You know the town halls have become toxic when Brian Baird avoids them. The Democratic congressman from southwestern Washington usually loves the format: He's held more than 300 town hall meetings in 10 years. But last week, he told a local paper that he was worried about what he called a lynch mob atmosphere, and he opted for a more remote method of reaching out to voters.
Representative BRIAN BAIRD (Democrat, Washington): If you want to ask a question - I'll make some opening comments - if you want to be put in the cue to ask questions, press star three.
KASTE: Telephone town hall meetings are suddenly very popular with Congress. Zain Khan runs iConstituent, the biggest provider of teleconferencing services on Capitol Hill. This summer, he says, business has more than doubled.
Mr. ZAIN KHAN (iConstituent): A, it's economical. B, it's extremely convenient. And C, I think given today's climate, it's probably safer.
KASTE: The technology is also easy to manipulate. The system calls you. It can call tens of thousands of people at once, usually at dinnertime, and it targets certain parts of the district, or even certain demographics. A call-in number is also provided for constituents who don't want to miss it, but they often end up frustrated.
Mr. LANCE MILLER: Busy, busy, busy - couldn't get through. And this has happened to me twice, you know, these telephone town halls, can't get through.
KASTE: That's Lance Miller, a resident of suburban Seattle who spent much of the August recess trying to get some face time with his congressman, Republican Dave Reichert. Miller supports the Democrats' health care plans, and he's upset that Reichert does not. Reichert has not held any in-person town halls during the recess. In fact, he's had precious few appearances that are open to the general public.
Representative DAVE REICHERT (Republican, Washington): Thank you all for being here. And I thank the panel so much for their time.
KASTE: One of those appearances was last week, when Reichert hosted a workshop for small business owners. Many in the audience, such as Lance Miller, came expressly to ask the congressman about health care.
Rep. REICHERT: So I hope you have a great conference. Thank you. And I'm off to another exciting event during the day. So thank you all for being here. Appreciate it very much. Thank you. Good luck.
KASTE: So when Reichert abruptly excused himself at the beginning of the session, his departure seemed to stun the audience. Outside the auditorium, Reichert paused to chat with a local TV news cameraman. Asked why he couldn't stay to talk about health care, he said he has had plenty of private meetings on the subject.
Rep. REICHERT: I'm only one man trying to do, you know, the job, and you can't meet with the 800,000 people that you represent.
KASTE: And then Reichert said he had to hurry off to a meeting in Seattle, though his staff wouldn't say who the meeting was with. Back in southwestern Washington state, it's now become a lot easier to find Democrat Brian Baird.
(Soundbite of booing)
KASTE: Baird's efforts to avoid scenes like this fell apart last week when he told that local newspaper that he also thought some of the tactics at other town halls were, quote, "close to Brownshirt tactics." Whenever an elected official lets loose with a Nazi analogy, an apology is never far behind.
Rep. BAIRD: I made some statements that I regret.
KASTE: In this case, Baird delivered his apology last night at exactly the kind of town hall he'd tried to avoid. To accommodate the pent-up demand, he held it in a county fair amphitheater. And he tried to explain to thousands of his constituents what this month has been like for members of Congress.
Rep. BAIRD: Here's the context: I was reading blogs and watching colleagues, friends of mine that had town halls, they were having to get escorted by police out. There were blogs, as you know, that were saying: Here's how to disrupt town halls. Specifically, they said: Don't let there be an intellectual discussion. Shout them down. Interrupt early. Obviously, this crowd's not doing it, and I'm really grateful for that.
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Rep. BAIRD: I was concerned about that.
KASTE: Not that the crowd was kind to Baird. At first, things were relatively calm. But after a couple of hours, questioners started unloading on the congressman, demanding to know if AmeriCorps volunteers were arming to take over the country, or whether the health care plan would dictate how parents could raise their children and whether he would uphold the Constitution.
Unidentified Man #2: What I want to know is, as a Marine, as a disabled veteran that served this country, I have kept my oath. Do you ever intend to keep yours?
(Soundbite of cheering)
Rep. BAIRD: Yes, I do.
KASTE: Baird smiled weakly as they dished it out for two-and-a-half hours, until even the crowd got tired. But there's more to come. He's announced another three of these town halls before the summer recess ends. It's a congressman's penance for being caught trying to avoid facing his constituents.
Unidentified Man #3: I don't need you. I don't need the government. Please, sit down and let us take the country back.
(Soundbite of cheering)
KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News, Vancouver, Washington.
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