As Members of Congress depart Washington, D.C. for the August recess, many will meet with their constituents face-to-face in town hall meetings. These gatherings, in locations such as local diners or high school auditoriums, provide constituents with the opportunities to hear from their Representatives and Senators directly, and to likewise raise their most pressing policy concerns.
It takes a lot of time and resources to ensure that these events work well for everyone involved. Under the best circumstances, they provide opportunities for meaningful civic engagement and an enhanced understanding of the policymaking process. Alternatively, they can devolve into shouting matches that provide little more than provocative clickbait on YouTube. Given the time and effort needed to convene these forums, it is natural to think that those Representatives and Senators who frequently hold town halls do so at the expense of focusing their energies on other important policymaking activities.
New analysis from the Center for Effective Lawmaking, however, suggests that such a tradeoff might not exist — at least not for town halls. Rather, those who are ineffective at lawmaking tend to avoid town halls altogether. In contrast, Representatives and Senators who engage with town halls can enhance their lawmaking effectiveness in Congress, building on insights gained in these forums and better representing their constituents.
Drawing on more than 23,000 town hall meetings with constituents over the past eight years, Andrew J. Clarke of Lafayette College and Daniel Markovits of Columbia University find significant variation in the propensity to hold constituent town halls. The average Representative holds nine town halls per Congress, and the average Senator holds seven. However, many legislators never meet with their constituents in these forums in the two years between elections. In analyzing the data, several important points emerge regarding potential tradeoffs between constituency engagement and lawmaking.
First, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is definitely not the case that those Representatives and Senators who hold the most town halls are less successful in advancing their agendas through Congress. Clarke and Markovits rely on the Legislative Effectiveness Scores from the Center for Effective Lawmaking for their analysis. These scores rate effectiveness based on the number of bills that members of Congress sponsor, how far they move through the lawmaking process, and how substantively important those bills are. Lawmakers are then compared to those in similar positions, in terms of seniority, and their status in the majority or minority party or as a committee chair. The authors find that, relative to similarly positioned members of Congress, the least successful lawmakers hold the fewest town hall meetings.
Moreover, it is also not the case that those Representatives and Senators who hold leadership positions, such as being party leaders or committee chairs, neglect their constituents by holding fewer town halls. Leaders and non-leaders are equally likely to engage with their constituents in these types of forums.
Finally, those Representatives and Senators who hold the most town halls are the same elected officials who introduce the most bills dealing with meaningful (non-commemorative) policy issues. This finding is consistent with the argument that those Representatives and Senators who hold the most town halls try to be directly responsive to what they are hearing from their constituents during these meetings. These findings point to town halls as a tool for cultivating a policy agenda closely tied to constituency priorities and needs, a legislative strategy directly tied to effective lawmaking in Congress. Coupling general policy proposals with specific local anecdotes often offers a compelling legislative strategy.
The demands on Representatives’ and Senators’ time are immense, and their resources are scarce. In the face of such a busy schedule, combined with an increasingly contentious political environment, where the public holds Congress in low regard, lawmakers may question whether town halls are worthwhile; and constituents might likewise wonder whether attending these forums makes any difference. This latest research suggests that the lack of town halls sends a signal of ineffectiveness, while lawmakers seeking to become more effective may benefit from these exchanges with constituents. Voters, in turn, are well-served by exploring the availability of town halls, attending these meetings, and making their voices heard.
Craig Volden is a professor of public policy and politics, with appointments at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at UVA.
Alan Wiseman is the Cornelius Vanderbilt professor of Political Economy and Chair of the Political Science Department at Vanderbilt University.
They are co-directors of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, which is a joint partnership between the two universities and which grew out of the professors’ Legislative Effectiveness Project, featured in their award-winning book “Legislative Effectiveness in the United States Congress: The Lawmakers.”