by DJ Danielson
(Cross-posted at I Don't Hate America!)
In the midst of the media's coverage of health care “town hall” style meetings and the hysteria from conservative activists over the reluctance (or in some cases, refusal) of some Members of Congress to participate in such forums, at least one Republican congressman's refusal to hold one has, until recently, been virtually ignored.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., has largely gone under the radar despite not only failing to host a forum about health care so far during Congress's summer recess, but hosting only one forum at all since his election to the House in 2002. Kline serves Minnesota's Second Congressional District, which, while containing suburbs in Carver, Scott, Dakota and Washington counties, is largely rural.
This stubbornness has been an ongoing frustration for Kline's constituents, but his emergence into the broader discussion about health care town halls only occurred when he turned down Rep. Tim Walz's invitation to appear at a forum in Walz's First District. In return, the invitation said, Walz would have appeared at a town hall with Kline in the Second District.
With a town hall even being held by DFL Seventh Congressional District Rep. Collin Peterson, who previously had a hands-off attitude toward such forums, a few of us from the Second District DFL thought was time to request that Kline hold one.
So, about a half-dozen of us went off to Kline's district office in Burnsville yesterday. No video cameras. No ambushing. No hostility. No inflammatory rhetoric. Just a simple request that Congressman Kline hold a town hall forum on health care.
We were kindly greeted by congressional staff including District Director Mike Osskopp who invited us into a conference room to discuss our request. When Kline's rejection of Walz's invitation was brought up, Osskopp strongly reiterated that it was their opinion that the invitation was nothing more than a “publicity stunt.” Due to the relatively close relationship both congressmen share (he mentioned that they often travel together), if the invitation was in good faith Walz would have picked up the phone and called Kline as opposed to sending a letter, Osskopp said.
After some discussion of concerns with the current health care system, we were joined somewhat unexpectedly by Rep. Kline himself. After briefly mentioning his frustration with the road map to a health care reform bill used by President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Leader Reid, Kline gave his reasoning for refusing to hold a town hall forum, with or without Walz.
“They are a circus,” the congressman said. “They have been a circus for our side, and a nightmare for my Democrat friends, as you've seen.”
This position is in stark contrast with that of other Repbulican activists who were outraged at Peterson's previous lack of town halls. Among them is Minnesota GOP Deputy Chair Michael Brodkorb, who said "If you don't want to meet with people, then don't run for Congress."
While he refuses to hold a traditional town hall forum, Kline did express willingness to meet with a smaller group, 50 to 100, from the DFL side to discuss health care.
He explained that he felt the current “auditorium style” town halls have “gotten so far away from their original purpose” and only enable “each side to shout over each other.”
“It shouldn't be about looking to get on YouTube; it shouldn't be about getting on Channel 9,” Osskopp added.
Soon, the subject was changed to Kline's use of “tele-town halls,” which Kline characterized as “successful” and led Osskopp to mention that “even Tim Walz is having one.”
I pointed out that the Walz telephone town hall, held last night, would feature a pre-announced dial-in number enabling all constituents and the media to “attend.” I added my position that this method enables greater constituent participation and transparency, as opposed to the method used by Kline and other members, like Michele Bachmann, which “auto dial” 40,000 constituents at random with no advance notice of the “event.”
Osskopp explained that since Kline usually hosts the telephone town halls from Washington, and the voting schedule changes “by the hour,” it would be difficult to offer advance notice. He went on to express willingness to email a couple of members of our group in advance when he becomes aware of the forums, however
Another DFLer at the table expressed greater concerns about the “auto dial” method of telephone town halls, particularly the potential for participants to be cherry picked based on party identification and for only friendly softball questions to be taken. Kline, Osskopp and Communications Director Troy Young (in the room taking photos) all explained that there are strict laws which would prohibit such behavior and that the House Ethics Committee has strict oversight over telephone town halls which would prevent it. Kline further explained that he indiscriminately goes “down the sheet one by one” taking questions during a forum. Young further explained that if a constituent opts-in to participate in the telephone town halls on Kline's official website, the office is “required” to call the constituent when one occurs. We were all encouraged to take such a step.
Soon after, with his scheduler hovering in the hallway, it was time for Kline to move on to the next task on his schedule. He closed by mentioning that the subject of town hall meetings was one about which he agrees with his “friends Collin Peterson and Jim Oberstar.” Before his exit I quickly mentioned how Peterson recently had a town hall in Willmar which was widely reported as civil and productive. The congressman's response: “Well, that's great. Thanks guys.”
Kline mentioned a couple of times during the conversation that he is “not afraid of Democrats.” Since he spent time meeting with our small group, along with his willingness to meet with a larger group of us and his district director's willingness to try giving advanced notice for telephone town halls, I would like to take him at his word. Considering the collegiality of our meeting yesterday (for which Kline, Osskopp and other staff should be commended) I see no reason for such a fear.
Hopefully there can be follow-through on both sides so we can continue our dialog about not just the process surrounding Kline's constituent outreach but the subject on so many of our minds: health care.
DJ Danielson resides in Savage, MN. He developed a political foundation in Greater Minnesota, having graduated from Winona State University (where he began blogging) and having performed campaign work in the northwestern corner of Minnesota's Seventh Congressional District. He enjoys a competitive softball game, spending time outside with his dog, and a good steak. He can be reached at djdanielson(at)gmail.com.