Our Congressional Representative, Jaime Herrera Beutler, declined to hold town hall meetings during last week’s Presidents’ Day recess. She found time, however, to hold a closed-to-the-public gathering at swanky Skamania Lodge in Stevenson last Wednesday.
Rep. Beutler (R-Camas) reportedly gave a speech on economic development to a select group of constituents. The Skamania County Sheriff’s Office provided off- and on-site security for the event. Sheriff Dave Brown escorted Rep. Beutler from the meeting to her vehicle in the lodge’s vast carpark, according to one eyewitness account.
The story goes that Rep. Beutler did not stop at the bottom of the lodge’s driveway for an impromptu caucus with voters of the 3rd Congressional District she has represented for six years now. This district includes all of Klickitat, Ska-mania, and Clark counties, and contains Democratic, Republican, and Independent voters of all spectrums of the political prism.
U.S. Senators and Representatives are not required to hold town halls or to meet face-to-face with their constituents in other types of forums. Such a requirement is not in the job descriptions spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.
Still, Senators and Representatives in other states of the union managed to stage town halls with their constituents. These lawmakers took some verbal abuse on a range of hot topics, but that was to be expected. People are upset and angry about a lot of things, not just the possible repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act of 2010, aka Obamacare.
Holding a town hall is not an act of courage on the parts of these lawmakers. It shouldn’t take courage to stand before constituents, take their questions (and abuse), and give truthful answers. It doesn’t take courage to do this, but it requires some interpersonal communication skill that perhaps Rep. Beutler lacks. Not everybody can stand the kitchen’s heat.
Rep. Beutler’s preferred strategies for conferring with constituents and informing herself are the small-group gatherings and telephone town halls that voters must call in to to take part. These are strategies that seem to work best for her. We can find nothing to criticize about these approaches.
There is a “however” to this binary strategy. It insulates Rep. Beutler from the general public. In this part of the 3rd Congressional District, the congresswoman is invisible. She appears disinterested in our issues, such as the replacement of the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge.
I have been editor of The Enterprise since the second week of June 2011, I have yet to meet Rep. Beutler. She’s never just dropped by our office, the way Sid Morris-on, Doc Hastings, and Brian Baird used to when they represented Klickitat County and happened to be in the vicinity. Nor has her office ever contacted me to set up an interview, or to announce the congresswoman was holding a public meeting with constituents.
Rep. Beutler got elected to Congress in 2010. She is now in the first year of her fourth 2-year term. She apparently not only has an aversion to large gatherings of people, she also has no use for communicating her thoughts to her constituents via weekly newspapers.
In electoral terms, Rep. Beutler is sitting in a safe seat. She won re-election in 2016 with 61.8% of the vote, her largest margin of victory to date. As long as she avoids scandal, stays busy doing the work people elected her to do, and keeps doing what she believes is the right thing for her constituents, Rep. Beutler will continue to get re-elected.
Rep. Beutler has no incentive to hold town halls or any other kind of forum that exposes her to questioning and having to defend positions that are unpopular with some voters of the 3rd District. She doesn’t have to take anybody’s verbal abuse or pointed questions on the hot topics of the day. She is finding other ways to inform herself, thank you very much.
That said, Rep. Beutler also has the liberty of growing seniority and being in a safe seat, which give her some wiggle room to be more bipartisan in an effort to expand her base in Klickitat County and Southwest Washington. It’s a huge opportunity.
But, Rep. Beutler won’t take advantage of it because that would mean opening the door to and inviting in people who disagree with her world view, and stepping outside her comfort zone.
Rep. Beutler is in a safe seat, so she can afford to play it safe and disregard her civic responsibility to engage with her constituents on a regular basis.