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Report praises online town halls but critics fear Congress dodging real debate

Published October 26, 2009 5:30 pm

Caution » Some say the high tech means of communicating with constituents should not replace face-to-face meetings, though.
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A new report says constituents like using online town-hall forums and think more highly of their congressional members because of the interaction, but critics warn against using the method to skirt in-person meetings.

The Congressional Management Foundation says a study of Internet-based town halls conducted in 2006 and 2008, including one with Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, showed voters involved were more likely to support the member of Congress after the event, leaned more toward that politician's point of view on a subject and even helped lock in their vote in a future election.

"Members of Congress are always looking for ways to stay connected back home," says Beverly Bell, foundation executive director. "It only makes sense that they would turn to the Internet for its almost-limitless networking capabilities, the same way other people are using it to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family."

But while the online town hall may be convenient for Congress and time-pressed constituents, there are major drawbacks, say activists on the left and the right. For one, the forums may limit what questions are asked, block critical comments and dodge real debate between constituents and their representatives.

"It's a sham," says former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who now runs the nonprofit High Road for Human Rights. "They're doing what's good for them, not what's good for public dialogue. When you can't get your own congressman to show up face to face with constituents, something is very wrong."

Anderson, who protested Matheson's choice in August to use telephone town halls instead of in-person huddles with voters on health care, says he is fine with politicians using online or telephone town halls as part of their outreach but not to the exclusion of traditional discussions.

Matheson had not seen the report Monday but spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend said constituents who have participated in telephone town halls have been overwhelmingly supportive of that method.

Utah Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen notes that the Beehive State's GOP members of Congress have used tele-town halls, but still stood up in front of constituents in August to hear concerns about health-care reform. Hansen says a good mix of all of those methods is needed.

"It's not an either/or situation," he says. "Use a combination of them."

And at least one member of Utah's delegation agrees.

"It's important to diversify, because you have literally hundreds of thousands of people who want to communicate in different ways," says GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who uses Twitter, Facebook, online videos and other methods to reach out to constituents.

While technology improves the ability to communicate, Chaffetz says meeting in the same room with voters remains important. "I don't think there's any substitute."

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