Michelle Lynn-Sachs of Austin was one of the lucky 10 constituents who got to ask her congressman, Rep. Michael McCaul, a question during his 52-minute “telephone town hall” Wednesday night, but his answer let her down
Lynn-Sachs asked the Austin Republican what he was “willing to say to both Jewish constituents like me and also to Muslim constituents who are also the target of hate speech and violence around the country.”
“I think there’s no place for that,” said McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, before revealing that new intelligence had him worried that ISIS is encouraging Muslim followers to attack Jewish communities in the West, beginning in Europe.
“He was silent about the threat against Muslims and violence against Muslims, and, if I had been questioning him in person, I could have asked about that again,” Lynn-Sachs, a leadership coach and consultant in Austin’s Jewish community, said Thursday. But, on McCaul’s telephone town hall, there was no way to follow up.
Telephone town halls have become a popular means of communication for many members of Congress — a cost-effective way to reach a lot of constituents without ever leaving Washington and in a controlled, risk-free environment — no tough, sustained questioning, no crowd reaction, no possibility of a viral video and generally very little press coverage at all.
“These calls are a great opportunity to share your views and allow me to share the work I have been doing for you in Washington,” McCaul said at the outset of the call. Audio from the conference call also was streamed on McCaul’s Facebook page.
“We are reaching 50,000 people through this call,” said McCaul, whose district stretches from Northwest Austin to the western Houston suburbs. “It’s almost like being in an NFL stadium with 50,000 people. It’s a great way to hear from people I may not always hear from.”
While the numbers of participants are huge, a telephone town hall is a solitary experience.
On Saturday U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, held a town hall meeting in San Antonio and then on Sunday drew some 700 people to another town hall in a gym at Huston-Tillotson University. He answered questions for the planned hour and, when there was still a long line of people waiting, continued the meeting for another hour outside.
On Monday, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, held a lively two-hour town hall with about 500 people in the cafeteria of Memorial High School in his hometown, pulling from a punch bowl slips of paper on which members of the audience had written questions.
Aside from Doggett, none of the five Republican members of Congress who represent parts of Austin — Roger Williams of Austin, John Carter of Round Rock, Lamar Smith of San Antonio, Bill Flores of Bryan and McCaul — have held an in-person town hall event since Donald Trump was sworn in as president.
But, in each of those five districts, members of Indivisible, a network of grassroots activists alarmed by the Trump presidency, held mock town hall meetings during a weeklong congressional break last month for their absent members of Congress. More than 500 people packed Congregation Beth Israel on Feb. 23 for the town hall for McCaul’s constituents, who asked questions that were videotaped and sent to the congressman.
The questions at McCaul’s telephone town hall Wednesday were pre-screened.
“Those of us who pressed Star 3 were then asked to record our question,” said Sue Kelley, a retired attorney with the Texas attorney general’s office. If the recorded question was chosen, the constituent was able to call back and pose the question directly to McCaul, after which the caller’s phone was muted.
“Mine was about Planned Parenthood so that consigned me to town hall Siberia,” Kelley said. She got no call back.
But Siberia was crowded. Ten questions meant that only two-hundredths of a percent of the 50,000 constituents on the call made the cut.
Building the border wall
The first call came from a woman in Katy, who, when asked by McCaul how things were in Katy, replied, “Could be better if we had that wall built by now.”
“That’s where our concern is and our only concern, because if the illegal immigration doesn’t get under control or stop, my husband and I for the first time will be leaving Texas, and we are seventh-generation Texans,” she replied.
McCaul said he was a fourth-generation Texan and shared the caller’s concern, assuring her that, “I think we finally have the political will in Washington and the White House” to get it done.
The second call was from Ruth in Austin, who over a bad connection, said, “To me, to build a physical wall is an irresponsible use of money.”
“Sorry Ruth,” replied McCaul, who evidently had trouble hearing what she was saying. “I think your question was, `What is the wall going to look like,’ and it’s a great question.”
Ruth had no way to tell the congressman that that wasn’t what she asked, so McCaul offered a detailed response at the end of which he again thanked Ruth for the quality of her question.
“There wasn’t an opportunity for follow-up questions unfortunately due to time,” said McCaul spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow. “We wanted to get in as many questions as possible within the hour.”
Much of the call’s 52 minutes was consumed by McCaul, offering talking points on border security, health care and regulation.
“Next time the congressman holds a telephone town hall he wants to do less of the talking so we are able to get to more questions from the queue,” Litzow said.
Each of McCaul’s disquisitions was followed by a poll.
The first was, “Do you believe we need to secure our borders. Press 1 for yes, 2 for no, 3 for I don’t know.”
The second poll asked, “Do you believe that it is the role of the federal government to mandate the purchase of health care?”
The third poll asked, “Do you agree we should do away with one burdensome regulation for every new one that’s implemented?”
“The purpose of the polls is for us to better learn what our constituents are interested in and how they feel on particular issues so the congressman can better represent his constituency,” said Litzow. McCaul doesn’t publish the results.
Maureen of Houston asked McCaul who would get to decide which regulation would be removed to make room for a new one.
Recalling Blue Bell Ice Cream’s experience with listeria, Maureen asked what would happen if there was a need for a new food safety regulation.
“I hope to heaven you wouldn’t want to remove the regulation related to listeria,” she said.
“Obviously, we don’t want to endanger the safety of Americans,” said McCaul. He said the evaluation of which regulation to eliminate to make way for a new one would rest with the Office of Management and Budget.
But McCaul, who had earlier cited data about what a drag regulation was on the economy, said eliminating regulations is very popular with small-business owners in the district.
“Like Lincoln said, you can’t please everybody,” he said.
Litzow said Wednesday wasn’t McCaul’s first telephone town hall. The last was a little over a year ago. She said he has done live town halls. The last was in August 2016.
“The congressman doesn’t usually host telephone town halls because he prefers to reach his constituents in other ways,” Litzow said. “However, there is a lot going on in this current political environment, and the congressman felt strongly about reaching as many folks as possible to discuss some of the hot topics: immigration executive orders, our border, our health care system, Russia and more.”
McCaul closed the call on an upbeat note.
“We had an overwhelming response,” he said. “If I was unable to get to your question today I apologize for that, and somebody on my staff will be in touch with you shortly.”