WASHINGTON — During recent recesses, members of Congress who returned home to host town hall meetings were subjected them to raucous sessions with constituents venting anger in face-to-face showdowns.
This summer, with approval ratings of Congress as low as 13 percent, they appear to have learned their lesson. Washington lawmakers are using the political version of crowd control, shying away from wide-open forums and choosing alternative appearances to avoid the attacks that dominated the 2009 health care town halls or this year's outbursts over Republican proposals to restructure Medicare.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the architect of the GOP budget, took a bashing at some of the 19 public "listening sessions" last spring in Wisconsin after the House passed his proposal to revamp Medicare. This month, Ryan opted for a conference call to connect with thousands of constituents.
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi also took a less unpredictable approach. She toured female-owned small businesses in San Francisco, took questions at a Bay Area job fair and is speaking at events across the country this month.
Lawmakers seem to prefer meeting constituents in more controlled venues, avoiding rabble-rousers or amateur videographers who may turn them into the next online spectacle. Some events are hosted by groups that charge entrance fees, another way to filter who is in the audience.
"They're trying to avoid YouTube moments," said John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and former Republican operative.
The lack of public face time with lawmakers is another byproduct of the tumultuous state of political affairs in the country, an era when partisan lines divide the nation and voters seem to have little affection for their elected officials.
Polls show Americans not only want to throw the bums out, a view voters often express, but they want to dislodge their own representative — a big shift in voter attitudes.
A Pew Research Center survey released Thursday said 86 percent of Americans are "frustrated or angry" with the federal government. Republican leaders' approval ratings dropped to 22 percent, with Democrats not much better at 29 percent.
The quiet August also reflects a country in economic distress, with a 9.1 percent national unemployment rate bringing hardship to many families.
"It's pretty subdued — I think that's what the national mood is right now," said Adam Sarvana, press secretary to Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who has held several theme-specific town halls but has avoided open-ended events "for people to throw tomatoes at him."
Some Republicans new to Congress are holding town halls — and getting an earful. Freshman Rep. Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y., has held several events with senior citizens to tamp down concerns about changes to Medicare under the proposed GOP budget.