Most Texans in Congress not planning in-person town halls over recess

By Mariana Alfaro and Sanya Mansoor

Most members of the Texas congressional delegation will not hold in-person town halls in their districts during the week-long recess that started Monday, according to a Tribune search of lawmakers' websites and social media.

Though several lawmakers plan to engage with their constituents in different ways, including phone conferences and office hours, only one Congress member from Texas, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, had publicly announced plans to hold a public town hall in the state as of Monday.

Although town halls used to be held regularly by members of Congress across the country, the practice has dwindled since 2009, when constituents angry with then-President Barack Obama’s proposed healthcare overhaul protested Democratic town halls. More than seven years later, similar raucous town halls have greeted some Republican members of Congress who have recently held them.

Five Texas members of the U.S. House – John Culberson of Houston, Kay Granger of Fort-Worth, Randy Weber of Friendswood, Michael Burgess of Lewisville, and Brian Babin of Woodville, all Republicans – have held or will hold tele-town halls this week. In these conference call-style events, constituents can speak to their representatives under more controlled conditions, where aides can filter questions and thousands can tune in at the same time.

Both of the state's U.S. Senators – Ted Cruz and John Cornyn – visited Texas during the recess, neither are holding in-person town halls, according to their offices' websites.

On Friday and Saturday, Cruz met with mayors, agricultural and business leaders and Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley. On Monday, he met with local oil and gas leaders. Cornyn spent Monday touring the U.S.-Mexico border with Reps. John Carter, R-Round Rock, and Mike Conaway, R-Midland. None of these gatherings were open to the public.

While visiting the Rio Grande Valley, Cruz did speak with protesters for about 10 minutes outside an event. Facing questions about whether he would hold a town hall, Cruz defended his and his office's accessibility to the public, saying he has "brought in additional staff just to answer the phone, just to respond to people."

"I can tell you in our regional offices across the state, when protesters have come, we are bringing them in, we are sitting down with them, we're listening to them," Cruz said. "Let me be clear: I've done town halls all over the state, and actually I've done lots of public events here and all over the state."

Several Texans in Congress held town halls in the past but have decided to reach their constituents in different ways during this recess, according to representatives from their offices.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo  used to hold traditional town halls but has now shifted to more direct means of communication due to the large size of his district, according to press secretary Victoria Glynn. Each month, his staff holds neighborhood office hours in every city in the district. They also hold quarterly tele-town hall meetings with 30,000 households invited to participate.

“He has found the direct engagement model, though more costly and time-consuming, to be more effective than traditional town halls,” Glynn said in a statement to the Tribune.

Other members of Congress are using this week to continue their work in Washington.

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, has long relied on town halls. In his 14 years in Congress, he has always held one town hall before easter, he said Sunday on WFAA-TV's Inside Texas Politics. But his “work is in Washington” right now as he chairs a House subcommittee tasked with unwinding the Affordable Care Act.

“I’ve spent more time in D.C. since the election of Donald Trump than in the beginning of any Congress since I’ve been there,” Burgess said.

Other Texas representatives are expected to hold town halls during the summer, including U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi. Farenthold’s press office said the Congressman is holding roundtables with businesses and meetings with constituents during the current recess.

This lack of town halls has led to the creation of “empty chair” events across the country, where constituents hold events to express their concerns to their representatives — whether they decide to show up or not. More than 200 people showed up on Sunday to address a cardboard cutout of U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, according to the Austin-American Statesman.

Felicia Miyakawa of Round Rock scheduled a similar town hall meeting for Wednesday after her representative, Carter, failed to schedule his own, according to the Statesman. Carter's office told her that he would not be available to attend.

Abby Livingston and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune. 

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