It’s bad enough when the term “town hall” is used for a meeting that has nothing to do with the governance of a town. For many years, state legislators and members of Congress have appropriated the term for a meeting with constituents. Despite the stupid name, these meetings with constituents serve a valuable purpose. They allow ordinary citizens to ask questions of their elected officials directly. They let elected officials know when the public is angry at them. Although meeting with angry citizens is unpleasant, politicians generally realize that it is part of the job.
For example, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey met with constituents on June 24 at Franklin & Marshall College. Anybody could show up and ask Mr. Casey questions. Sure, calling the event a “town hall” was stupid, but at least the senator heard from the public, rather than from a selected group of people.
In March, U.S. Rep. Scott Perry became the first Republican from Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation to hold a public meeting with constituents since the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. He required people to sign up in advance and give their ZIP codes so only residents of his congressional district would attend; people had to show photo ID to get in. These were reasonable steps to take to ensure that he would not be shouted down by political opponents coming in from far away. Nonetheless, he was deluged with angry invective from constituents who were angry about efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. Mr. Perry had another meeting with constituents planned for June, which he postponed in the wake of the June 14 shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and three other people at a baseball practice. A cynical person might think that Mr. Perry was making an excuse to avoid a repeat of the March event, but Mr. Perry said he planned to reschedule the meeting. It is to his credit that he is willing to listen to his constituents.
But U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey is taking another approach. The last time he held a meeting like Mr. Casey’s event in Lancaster was in 2015. But on Wednesday, July 5, Mr. Toomey participated in a so-called “town hall” at the Harrisburg studios of WHTM-TV that was also broadcast on ABC affiliates in Altoona, Wilkes-Barre and Erie. Unlike Mr. Casey’s event in Lancaster, where anybody could show up, or Mr. Perry’s event, which was open to any resident of his district who signed up in advance, this made-for-TV event had a small group of citizens who were there by invitation. Protesters showed up outside the TV studio and several were arrested for trespassing.
If Mr. Toomey has concerns about violence, he can reasonably address them with an approach like Mr. Perry’s, possibly adding security with a metal detector at the entrance. Instead, all he is willing to do is hold telephone conference calls with constituents and to appear in a sanitized forum like the one at the television station.
As bad as Mr. Toomey’s refusal to meet in person with a broad base of his constituents is, our anger should be focused more on the television station. Mr. Toomey is acting in his own self-interest as a politician. He has a well-founded fear that video from a meeting anybody can attend will show a horde of angry citizens and it will go viral. But WHTM-TV should not be giving Mr. Toomey cover for his cowardice. Yes, the television studio is small enough that a large audience might not be possible. But there’s no reason why the station has to hold the event in its studio. There are plenty of larger venues in south-central Pennsylvania where the Mr. Toomey could have taken questions and the station could have brought its cameras. Sure, the station held an event with Mr. Casey in April, which was also by invitation only, but Mr. Casey has been holding open meetings. The television station failed its civic responsibility to hold elected officials accountable by hosting Mr. Toomey in this manner.