Last-minute public schedules benefit no one

Are we witnessing the final throes of the “full Grassley” era?

Some readers may remember the Congressional recess in the summer of 2009. As a reporter, I covered then Congressman Bruce Braley’s town hall forums, which were overrun with concerns about the Affordable Care Act. The reports I and other journalists filed about those meetings were peppered with words like “feisty,” “lively” and “contentious,” but still fell short of conveying the level of combativeness on display.

Constituents got in each other’s faces as well as those of their representatives. A few cried. Some brandished signs. Others yelled. Nearly everyone arrived with an agenda, and a willingness to fight.

That was the summer when U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, speaking at a forum in Winterset, made his infamous “pull the plug on grandma” statement. So, from union members supporting health care reform to Tea Party activists opposing, no member of Iowa’s Congressional delegation got a free pass.

Shouts of both support and disapproval are made by the audience at a town hall meeting on healthcare reform held by Congressman Dave Loebsack at Ballantyne Auditorium in Cedar Hall at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, August 15, 2009. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

I’d like to say things have improved since the summer of 2009, but, as I discovered this week, they’re worse.

I’ve been fielding notes from readers looking for information on where various members of Congress will be during the week of Feb. 20, when federal lawmakers are supposed to return to home districts. Most already reached out to district offices, garnering unsatisfactory results. A few believe they’re getting the runaround, that their Congressional representatives would prefer not to see them.

While no single issue is driving this interest, people from both sides of the aisle are generally frustrated. They feel ignored, pushed out of what should be a constituent-driven process.

As I’ve told readers, public schedules are typically released a week or two before the recess. I sent links to each member’s website so that the readers could keep their own watch. That was when I learned that only one member of the Iowa delegation (Sen. Grassley) still includes a public schedule on his official website.

I made my own calls to the district and Washington, D.C. offices of the members who represent me, and received responses similar to what readers reported. The schedule was still being developed. No, the staffer didn’t know when it would be available.

I also sent email messages as a member of the media, asking for a copy of the public schedule. As of this writing, two offices have not responded.* The responses I did receive were polite, efficient, and mirrored information from district offices. As is typical, they included a polite version of the question: “Why do you want to know?”

The bottom line is that less than 10 days out from a scheduled recess, I’ve yet to receive any information about the Iowa delegation’s public schedules — either as a member of the media or as Jane Blow constituent.* Under either hat, I’ll admit that I’m frustrated. And given that my job doesn’t require time off to go listen to a member of Congress, my guess is that my level of frustration is significantly less than that of my readers.

If the Iowa delegation follows the advice of GOP leaders, chances are many will return to their home district with added security.

“The majority of House Republicans were not serving in the chamber during the heated and intense debate over Obamacare in 2009 and 2010, a time when opponents of the Democratic proposal led rallies and flooded town hall meetings in districts across the country, often booing and heckling members of Congress,” notes CNN.

There’s a part of me that would like nothing more than to dash off a few paragraphs containing the words “goose” and “gander.” After all, this is largely a political climate of their own making. Most newer Republicans in Congress and in our Statehouse can trace their success back to those “feisty,” “lively” and “contentious” exchanges nearly a decade ago. They’ve reaped the political hay, and it seems somewhat satisfying to consider they’ll have to store it in their own barn.

Instead, I’m going to once again caution against direct and organized confrontational activities. That does not mean, once schedules are actually public, that I want people to stay home. It doesn’t mean that I expect people to sit on their hands and not ask hard questions.

What I want people to do is examine their own actions, and consider the repercussions of those actions.

For years Sen. Grassley has campaigned on the fact that he visits all 99 Iowa counties each year. And, yes, he continues to do so — and has encouraged other members of the Iowa delegation to do the same. Yet an increasing number of Iowans are pointing to private meetings in places where public forums have drawn combative crowds.

We the people need to take a breath and ask ourselves why.

Why is Grassley the only member of the Iowa delegation who keeps a public schedule on his website? My guess is its because he always has, and I wish all members of the delegation followed his lead. But the truth is, since I’ve drawn attention to it, I’m afraid the opposite will happen and Grassley’s schedule also will disappear.

Public schedules of elected officials, once confirmed, should be made public immediately. Holding them until the last possible moment is simply wrong. Releasing them only to a chosen few is cowardly. Purposefully booking small venues is dishonest. Limiting constituents to telephone town halls where staff members can cherry pick who is allowed to voice concerns is an affront to free speech.

This new normal of refusing to announce and of looking on those who request such information with suspicion has fed the perception of members of Congress hiding from constituents, of avoiding all but the most friendly encounters. Worse, it has forced more constituents to seek information about meetings from groups whose sole purpose is to make as much noise as possible.

Iowans who truly want more face-to-face interactions with their representatives need to work harder to end the vicious cycle already underway. A good first step is letting your representatives know that you deserve and require timely notice of their public meetings. And, once you have that information, show up as much prepared to listen as to be heard.

* — UPDATE: New public schedule information was released after the print deadline for this column; and, currently, all but one member of the Iowa delegation has responded to my media request. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office has announced four public meetings during the week of Feb. 20. Sen. Joni Ernst’s office has scheduled a Veterans Roundtable in Jackson County and a “constituent coffee” in Wayne County.

A reader noted that U.S. Rep. David Young’s office includes a “Coffee with my Congressman” page on his official website — a page I did review before filing this column. The website offers information regarding a single upcoming event in Washington, D.C., and asks constituents to sign up for information regarding similar events within Young’s home district. A sign-up form does not meet the standard of a “public” schedule.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on February 12, 2017. Photo credit: Cliff Jette/The Gazette