Spring break-ing point

If you’re a member of Congress, you might think civility is dead.

Democrats were spat on, heckled and shouted at last weekend as they passed a controversial and historic healthcare bill. 

The outbursts brought back memories of last summer’s healthcare town hall meetings, which became recognizable for the inflamed passions they spurred. And last weekend’s confrontations could be merely a preview of what’s awaiting members as they head to their districts for a two-week recess.

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Lawmakers say they’re ready to brave the crowds and share with their constituents the details and timing of the new healthcare provisions. 

“I think there’s still an intensity there,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said late last week. She sees her town hall meeting on March 29 as an opportunity to “sell the bill and get people excited about the changes.” 

“I don’t think it’s going to be like last August, in the sense that you have thousands of people showing up, screaming and shouting down their member, because that was clearly an intimidation tactic that was used to try to scare the members and bully them into doing what they wanted,” she said. “With the bill passing, that tactic is going to be pointless.”

Tensions rose anew on Capitol Hill as Democrats prepared to pass the healthcare measure. Protesters with the Tea Party movement shouted racial slurs at Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Andre Carson (D-Ind.), while at least one activist hollered anti-gay insults at Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

Frank is not planning on holding any town hall meeting during this recess, saying he usually doesn’t hold such forums because they aren’t a good way to hear his constituents’ concerns. Instead, his office is considering requests for him to speak to local community groups. 

Last summer Frank held two town hall meetings on healthcare in his district. At one, a woman compared the Democrats’ plan to Nazi policies while holding a picture of President Barack Obama that was made to look like Adolf Hitler. Frank asked her what planet she lived on and compared her to a dining room table, saying that he couldn’t have a conversation with her. 

“My preference is to meet with people at their request rather than mine,” Frank said. “A lot of people come from outside of my district, and my constituents get crowded out. I felt, in the end, they were political activists who find other ways to voice their opinion.”

Town hall meetings have always been a forum for voters to voice frustrations. But they’re also an essential element to a lawmaker’s staying in touch with constituents and gaining their support for reelection, according to Ron Faucheux, a Washington-based political analyst and public affairs strategist. 

“It’s very important for legislators to be in touch with their constituency, and I think there’s political peril in not being seen as being in touch with the voters,” Faucheux said. “If a town hall meeting is seen as the only opportunity you have to vent your displeasure with something, then it’s more likely to increase the sense of hostility. What heightens the hostility is if the incumbent is seen as not being in touch. But citizens who attend these meetings have a responsibility to be civil, too.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), one of the Tea Party movement’s stalwart supporters and organizers, said that, while Democrats aren’t going to have an easy spring recess, she doesn’t expect to see the large turnouts like those at town hall meetings last summer. 

“I think August was different because it was kind of a premiere, and so it’s tough to top a premiere,” she said. “But I think it will be hot and it will be active this spring, and it will really depend whether the Democrat members decide to even hold town hall meetings.”

Indeed, some members are still debating whether to hold town hall meetings, saying they may opt for telephone town halls, which would reach a broader audience.

“Part of it is mechanics,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said. “We’ve been using telephone town halls because it gives us a chance to meet more people, and then we put it online, and we end up giving 10,000 people an opportunity instead of hundreds in a smaller forum.”

But Rep. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), who has also been holding telephone town hall meetings, said if Democrats don’t hold town hall-style forums, it could be to their detriment. 

“I think the physical town halls are really important,” he said. “People want to see you and they want to look at you eyeball to eyeball, and I’m going to do it. I think people should demand it of the Democrats, especially if they vote for this bill. They are going to have a lot of ’splainin’ to do.”

Many lawmakers have other considerations. Several members have encountered genuine safety concerns amid the contentious debate. 

Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) received a phone call last summer from someone who threatened that the lawmaker could lose his life if he voted for the healthcare bill. 

Miller said he’s not concerned for his safety and plans to hold several community meetings over the spring recess. He said the repeated threats are just par for the course and that they come from the same people. 

“My staff’s been dealing with it for a long time, starting last summer, and really even before healthcare, every issue that came up there was a wave of calls,” Miller said. “There are a lot of insulting calls, and I don’t have the sense that these are people that voted for me in the first place. That doesn’t mean that I don’t pay attention to what they think, only that their threat that they’re not going to vote for me is fairly empty because they didn’t vote with me to begin with.”

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) was also the victim of last summer’s angst when someone painted a swastika on the sign in front of his district office. He said he isn’t worried about spring recess either, explaining that his religious beliefs give him comfort. 

“I think those passions have subsided,” said Scott, who has a series of talks scheduled throughout his district. “Every day I ask the Lord to keep his arms of protection around me. I trust in him.”

Republicans denounced the verbal abuse Democrats received from protesters over the weekend and Bachmann called the idea of members receiving threats because of their political views “abhorrent.” Many members on both sides of the aisle agree: Political passions throughout the nation have grown too unruly. 

“The temperature has risen way too high around a lot of issues in American politics,” said Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), who was one of 34 Democrats to vote against the healthcare package. “The bottom line is people are tired of the animosity, they’re tired of the vehemence, people are tired of the name-calling on both sides of the political spectrum. They’re tired of people demonizing their political thoughts.”