Thursday, June 15, 2017

Don't let town halls be another casualty of shootings -- June 15, 2017 column


Washington was badly shaken Wednesday by what appeared to be the politically motivated shootings of Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, a top congressional leader, and three others at a baseball field in Alexandria.

The shooter, whose name I will not use because such sickos crave fame, died after a gunfight with police. We may never know his motivation, but he had posted anti-Republican screeds on social media.

In the aftermath of the attack, many politicians curbed their instinct for the jugular and urged an end to harsh partisan rhetoric. 

“We may have our differences, but we do well to remember that everyone who serves in our nation's capital is here because they love our country," President Donald Trump said.
“An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” said an emotional House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said she prays for all members of Congress, regardless of party. 
“There’s too much, I believe, raw discourse that’s pulling people apart,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said.
It would be nice to think we’re seeing the Thaw of 2017, a melting of the polar ice caps on which Democrats and Republicans sit in frosty isolation, but don’t count on it.
Even though some lawmakers may genuinely want to put aside fierce partisanship, neither party seems willing to risk constituent outrage – and primary challenges -- if it compromises on health care and the budget, to say nothing of stricter gun laws.    
Unfortunately, the most likely result of the gunman’s rampage may be an even more locked-down and remote Congress.
House members already are invoking security as a reason to avoid town hall meetings and other uncomfortable encounters with constituents.
Rep. Dave Brat, R-Virginia, said members may have to “recalibrate” and rethink events like town halls.

“It’s a wake-up call,” Brat told Roll Call, a newspaper on Capitol Hill. “We should not be doing this.”

Brat was heckled and booed at a town hall in his district in February when he defended Trump’s policies.  
Also in February, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, cited the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, in explaining why he won’t hold in-person town halls.
“Threats are nothing new to me, and I have gotten my share as a felony judge,” Gohmert wrote in a letter to constituents.

“However, the House Sergeant at Arms advised us after former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot at a public appearance, that civilian attendees at Congressional public events stand the most chance of being harmed or killed – just as happened there,” he wrote.

Giffords was setting up a “Congress on your Corner” event in Tucson in January 2011 when a lone gunman shot her in the head, killed six people and injured 13 others.

Increased congressional security surely is needed in some settings. Of the 22 members of Congress at the ballfield, Scalise alone had a security detail, assigned because he is the third-ranking Republican in the House.

While Capitol Police protect all members of Congress when they’re in the Capitol complex, they provide 24-hour security only to the House and Senate leadership.

“By him (Scalise) being there, he probably saved everybody else’s life, because if you don’t have a leadership person there, there would have been no security there,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, told MSNBC. 

In this era of fiscal belt-tightening, having taxpayers pay for stepped-up security for hundreds of House members and senators outside the Capitol is problematic. 

Lawmakers are exploring other options, such as allowing members to use campaign funds for security outside Washington and of moving district offices to more secure locations.

As we move forward, we would be wise to listen to Giffords, who knows better than anyone the risks of openness. Responding to Gohmert, she wrote in a statement:

“I was shot on a Saturday morning. By Monday morning, my offices were open to the public. Ron Barber -- at my side that Saturday, who was shot multiple times, then elected to Congress in my stead — held town halls. It’s what the people deserve in a representative.

“To the politicians who have abandoned their civic obligations, I say this: Have some courage,” she wrote. “Face your constituents. Hold town halls.”

(C)2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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