Utah’s federal delegation has taken different approaches to town halls — some holding them far from constituents, others not at all — following the Trump inauguration.


by Rhett Wilkinson

Out-of-sync?

When it comes to town halls, at least, that may be one way to describe the congruence of Utah’s federal delegation with its constituents.

Ninety-two percent of registered Utah voters say congressional members should meet with constituents in open forums, according to a Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

Rep. Chris Stewart is a member of Utah’s federal delegation. He is the first among them to hold an in-person town hall since a relatively raucous town hall Feb. 9 with Rep. Jason Chaffetz. (St. George News)

Yet no in-person town halls were held by Utah’s six federal politicians for the first 40 days upon Donald Trump being sworn in as president save Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s Feb. 9 event. (That period of time included a week of recess.) And none were planned still for another month-and-half until a town hall by Rep. Chris Stewart then re-scheduled to 7 p.m. Friday at West High School in Salt Lake City.

Chaffetz’s Cottonwood Heights town hall saw relatively raucous attendees, with no violence occurring. Also, a majority of Utahns view Trump favorably, according to another Trib-Hinckley poll.

Utah’s elected officials have held town halls online, where the politicians could be thousands of miles from constituents. They have been called “tele town halls.” Since the Trump inauguration, those were March 1 from Reps. Mia Love and Stewart and others on Feb. 6 and March 15 from Sen. Mike Lee.

Love announced her March 1 online town hall just hours before it occurred. And as of March 29, audio of her apparent March 18 and 23 town halls could not be played from the author’s computer whereas Stewart’s and Lee’s audio worked fine. Love’s also didn’t have video as Stewart’s and Lee’s did.

And constituents said last month that Love district director Laurel Price told them that Love would meet in person only with “four to five people at a time,” with no recording devices or media allowed.

(Love won two relatively narrow elections to kick off her career in Congress, by just 5.1 and 11.5 percent, according to Ballotpedia.)

Rep. Rob Bishop nor Sen. Orrin Hatch have held any town halls, online or in-person, since the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump. A billboard of Bishop was posted in his district pointing this out. (Cathy McKitrick/Standard-Examiner)

Rep. Rob Bishop and Sen. Orrin Hatch?

No town halls of any kind whatsoever.

Bishop’s district saw a billboard go up asking “Have you seen this congressman?” The phrase and graphics of the billboard mirrored those used by the grassroots organization Utahns Speak Out against all of Utah’s federal delegation at their Feb. 24 Town Hall for All, during the recess.

Hatch has been criticized by many groups and individuals including Jenny Wilson, who is considering a run against the 40-year senator.

Congress’ next period of recess is April 10–21 after the first lasted Feb. 20–24. On March 11, another volunteer group, Utah Indivisible, held a town hall mirroring USO’s Town Hall for All but focusing just on Love. The recess event challenged the delegation’s lack of town halls by featuring cardboard cutouts of the elected officials along with signs with the phrase used for Bishop’s billboard.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee holding a “tele town hall.” The town halls Lee have held since the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump have been in this format, online, thousands of miles from constituents. (lee.senate.gov via Honest Answer Radio)

Lee’s March 15 online town hall marked the first since media covered the March 1 town halls following the infamous Chaffetz town hall.

Lee started his town hall not by answering a question but by suggesting that it was OK that folks would lose their insurance if the existing federal health care law, Obamacare, went away.

“Even the most aggressive plans out there dealing with Obamacare wouldn’t immediately pull the rug out from anyone,” Lee said. “Even the most aggressive plans out there would at most contain a delayed implementation clause and delay for a couple of years the cancellation of any government program with the idea that a combination of Congress and the states would decide what comes next.”

“The practical effect” of the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision to uphold the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate “(made) the Medicaid expansion optional for states,” according to The Kaiser Foundation. Utah has had five legislative sessions since then and hasn’t expanded Medicaid.

A constituent named Nadine then asked about Medicaid benefits. She said that health insurance companies have been raising rates “willy-nilly” and if “the poorest among us” are dropped from Medicaid, “emergency rooms are going to be inundated with these folks.”

Lee responded that the congressional effort concerning health care wasn’t to repeal it but “a particular bill” in Obamacare. He added: “Medicaid needs to be there for the truly vulnerable and not able-bodied adults.” Lee said nothing about those with mental health challenges.

A Marcell in Ogden pointed out that Lee, in an email, called a repeal of Obamacare a “laudable pursuit” and asked Lee if doing so was possible since it takes 60 votes in the Senate for a bill to pass, there is only 52 Republicans in the chamber and no Democrats were expected to vote for repeal.

Lee then brought up the budget reconciliation process in the Senate, which is meant to permit deliberation of a budget bill with debate kept to 20 hours.

A Ted then asked about pharmaceutical companies. He said that he works in the related industry and sees “enormous abuses going on inside the hospitals.” “I don’t think the health care issues will be resolved until they get to the basis of these abuses,” he said. He then spoke of pharmaceutical companies unfairly raising the cost of Revadio and companies, upon learning that, then increasing the price on Viagra.

“I find this reprehensible that (pharmaceutical companies) would do that,” Lee replied before touting two of his free market-heavy laws.

Another constituent named Janet asked about Trump’s executive order for more aggressive enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws. “Are you in agreement… where (the Department of Homeland Security) can detain anyone for suspecting them of criminals?” she asked.

“I’m not sure what you are describing,” Lee replied before claiming that there are constitutional limitations on holding even illegal immigrants indefinitely. He said nothing about DHS deportation authority.

A David asked about dealing with the “corrosive divide” between Republicans and Democrats.

Lee said it “tears at the fabric of our country” and talked about two bipartisan bills he sponsored. Lee was one of seven members of the 100-member Senate given a perfect score in 2013 by the influential American Conservative Union.

A Judy in Holladay asked about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election — “I consider that an act of war,” she said — and Congress’ investigating Trump’s ties to the country.

“The committees investigating this are many,” Lee said. He then remarked that the Senate and House has “two or three committees” looking into it. There is one: the intelligence committee in each chamber. Critics including attendees at Chaffetz’s town hall have said that the Russia issues should be investigated in Chaffetz’s House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee.

No one asked a question about Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the vacant Supreme Court seat, but Lee volunteered opinions about it at the end of the event. “If what you are looking for is a judicial activist, he’s not your guy,” Lee said. Both Lee and Gorsuch have been described as conservative.