Utah congressmen avoiding constituents?
I wrote recently about Elise Lazar's attempt to set up a meeting with Sen. Orrin Hatch to address concerns she and others had, but her call alarmed a Hatch staffer to the point she reported Lazar to the Capitol Hill police.
Lazar, a prominent citizen in Salt Lake County, active in community affairs and certainly no radical, was equally alarmed when she got a call from the cops in Washington, D.C., telling her she had been reported as a suspicious person. She now fears her phone might be tapped.
Hatch spokesperson Heather Barney let me know she felt Hatch had been unfairly portrayed in the column because Lazar was vague in her responses to questions from the staffer about the purpose of her call to Hatch and the senator has received serious threats in the past.
For her part, Lazar says she was vague because she wanted to express to Hatch her concerns about the Keystone XL pipeline project and worried that if she let that out in advance, her chances of meeting with Hatch would be diminished.
It's possible that both Lazar and the Hatch staffer had legitimate reasons for the way they handled their ends of the communication.
But there is a deeper issue here.
Lazar wondered if Hatch would be having a town hall meeting in Salt Lake County during spring recess.
There were suggestions recently that Congress be required to remain in Washington for a longer duration each week to resolve some of the nation's most pressing issues. The proposal was rejected on the premise that senators and representatives need the long weekends in their home districts to meet with constituents and learn their concerns.
But do they really?
For many of his 36 years in the Senate, Hatch built a reputation for having one of the best constituent services records in the Senate. He would aggressively assist Utahns who had problems. But access in recent years seems to have dwindled.
When he ran for re-election last year, he steadfastly avoided public debates. Instead of having to answer direct questions in public, he relied on the tens of millions of dollars he spent on slick advertising that gave is handlers exclusive control the message.
But this isn't just about Hatch.
For years, some of Rep. Rob Bishop's constituents were forced to make a long-distance call to his Utah office if they wanted to convey a concern.
That's because part of Salt Lake County was put in his gerrymandered district and he couldn't be bothered to put a toll-free number in his Ogden office.
Utahns trying to email Bishop or Congressman Jason Chaffetz have discovered that they have to log on with all sorts of personal information in order to send the email. If their address does not fall within the congressman's district, they are blocked.
Sen. Mike Lee has made it clear he doesn't rely on public opinion polls to consider the wishes of his constituents because, in his mind, pollsters are liberal so their results are skewed. He would rather use the rightist Utah Legislature as his public interest measuring stick.
Newly elected Congressman Chris Stewart recently scheduled a series of town hall meetings in his district to meet with constituents. But not one of those meetings will take place in Salt Lake County, which makes up a substantial portion of Stewart's district.
The bottom line is that, once elected, politicians have little incentive to subject themselves to the whims and criticisms of their public.
They just have to raise a lot of money from special interests, which is easy for an incumbent, and let the money do the talking for them.