House Dems ask for civility at town halls

If Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.) gets confronted by Tea Party Patriots next week, she'll counter with a patriot of her own.

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Markey's staff will be handing out a copy of George Washington's “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” to everyone at her public events.

It’s her effort to cool down the boiling debate, with a deliberate nod to Tea Party Protesters, some of whom don tri-cornered hats and carry "Don't tread on me" flags to protest the Democrats' health care plans.

“If you're going to have rules of civility, who better to get them from than George Washington?” said Markey spokesman Ben Marter.

Trying to avoid becoming the next deer in the town hall headlights on cable news, some lawmakers have cancelled the gatherings, or opted for the convenience of telephone town halls.

But others are plunging into the fray. Still, they're looking for ways to head-off the outbursts, heckling and even fisticuffs that have punctuated many of their colleagues' gatherings.

But the activists who oppose health reform say the problem isn't the fervor of the people at the meetings, it's the lack of answers.

“The problem is that they're not answering the questions that people are asking,” said Amy Kremer, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots.

But she said she's more bothered by members who are canceling town halls than those who are trying to calm them.

House Democrats traded ideas on how to tame the meetings in a conference-call caucus meeting Wednesday, tossing out suggestions such as inviting Boy Scouts to lead off the meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Another way to appeal to the better angels of seething constituents, some said, was to have a minister lead off with a prayer. Several lawmakers have attended prayer vigils hosted by religious groups who support the health care overhaul.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), himself an ordained minister, invoked the peaceful, non-violent approach espoused by the Rev. Martin Luther King to as he urged calm at his regular “Coffee with Cleaver.”

And others counseled endurance.

Lawmakers like Reps. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) and Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) have held marathon sessions, promising to stay into the night to answer every question. That avoids at least some of the problems faced by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) who wound up in the middle of a pushing match after limiting the number of questions at his town hall Tuesday in Lebanon, Pa.

“The goal of it is that no question is left unanswered,” said Jared Smith, Massa's spokesman. “People remain calm because they know they're going to be heard.”

Massa, who supports a government-run, single-payer system, says that as the bill stands, he would vote against it.

Experiencing massive turnout at one town hall last week, Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) booked a baseball stadium and wound up with a crowd of 3,000 people. Others have made sure to step outside of halls to talk to the overflow crowds.

But many are avoiding the classic auditorium-style town hall – which have hosted many of the most raucous exchanges – in favor of smaller events in coffee shops. Markey is among them, though Marter notes that “Congress on your corner” is a regular feature of the congresswoman’s trips home.

Markey, elected last year in a heavily Republican district, will meet with them in groups of 15 to 20 members, which removes much of the incentive for heckling and jeering. Marter said it's about expanding access.

“That way everyone gets to talk to Betsy face to face, and it's not just five people dominating the event,” Marter said. Markey is undecided on the House health care legislation.

But Cleaver found that a coffee shop can quickly overflow. The fire marshal asked Cleaver to move outside to talk to people after the shop got too crowded. Cleaver extended his session by an hour and was able to talk one-one-one with about 75 people. But about 500 people had attended, so many went away without talking to him.

Still, spokesman Danny Rotert said the event remained civil.

“There was chanting, but it would only last a minute or so,” Rotert said. “They sort of talked to each other.”

Those waiting in line to talk to Markey will get a copy of Washington's “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” There are actually 110 such rules, which Markey and her staff have pared down to eight to fit on a single page. She's also provided interpretation of each tailored to the health care debate.

For example, Washington's first rule is “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”

Markey's update: “Respect one another.  Don’t yell at people.  Don’t hold a sign in front of someone’s face. You may not agree with what they say, but everybody deserves a right to speak.”