For them, the format works for several reasons. It cuts down on much of the rowdiness that has become commonplace at recent in-person events across the country since aides can monitor questions. (A telephone forum Isakson held last week was a notably polite affair.) It insulates them against claims that they are shirking their constituents. It's also flexible and allows lawmakers to speak to thousands of constituents from geographically disparate parts of their district at once during busy work periods in Washington.
“The telephone town halls allow us to reach far more people in a short amount of time and also answer a lot more questions,” Collins said in an interview Wednesday. “At night it’s much easier for a young family to sit there on the phone and listen and participate than it would be for them to get up and come.”
But the format has raised the ire of some critics, who see it as overly controlled and frequently exclusive. They say constituents often aren’t notified far enough in advance and the set-up often allows lawmakers to dodge follow-up questions.
“Senator Isakson seems to have forgotten that he represents all Georgians and not just those chosen to interact with the senator during carefully choreographed events,” a group called Remember Us, Johnny? that’s critical of Isakson’s agenda said following the senator’s tele-town hall last week.
Congressional offices have defended the format, saying that anyone can dial in and that it is one of many ways they interact with constituents. And they insist that they aren’t shying away from tough questions.
“The only screening that comes is simply to get the person in queue to come to me,” Collins said of his tele-town halls. “I control my questions. I’m the one who answers those. So anybody that says that, they’re not informed.”
Other Georgia Republicans have steered clear of public events in recent weeks. Some offices have cited the busy congressional calendar, while others have opted for more private meetings or social media to answer questions.
“When we’re talking about the hardest issues of the day, it’s very difficult to handle them at a town hall,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville. “I’ve watched these town hall videos across the country. You can hear their frustration, you can hear their excitement. … We’re calling to those folks and saying, ‘Hey, come on in … and let me hear your story one on one.’”
As for Perdue, he does not have any telephone or in-person town halls on his calendar and has previously said he prefers meeting with constituents individually or in small groups. His office has urged people to reach out directly.
“Senator Perdue proudly represents over 10 million Georgians and appreciates feedback from anyone who calls, visits, writes and emails our offices to voice their concerns,” spokeswoman Caroline Vanvick said.
Perdue's office and several others have cast a wary eye toward left-leaning groups that have pushed for in-person events, saying they often bus in people from outside their districts to manufacture a spectacle.
“I’m not going to question people’s motives in the 10th District, but you look at a national perspective and there’s reason to question,” said U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe.
Some say the shouting and heckling that’s been reported at other town halls isn’t productive.
“When we do have our town halls all I ask is if you want the voice to be heard then come and let people speak,” said U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville.
Critics say many people are getting angry because they don’t feel like their voices are being heard. They say telephone town halls are still not a substitute for in-person events.
“If people are raising their voices, it’s because keeping them at the polite level didn’t work,” said Melita Easters, the executive director of the political action committee Georgia’s WIN List, who spoke at a recent protest outside Perdue’s office. “When the taxpayers feel like the people they are sending to Washington to represent them aren’t even giving them the courtesy of listening to their opinions, then they do get angry.”
The rhetoric is not all that different from 2009 and 2010, when Democratic lawmakers were on the receiving end of protests at town hall events as their party worked to pass the Affordable Care Act.
This time, only one Georgia lawmaker has held in-person town halls in the seven weeks since Trump was sworn into office. U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, faced voters five times during the weeklong Presidents Day recess, events that often veered into the contentious.
“I’m not going to be intimidated by unruly crowds,” Carter said in a recent interview. “This is something I have to do for my constituents. I feel a responsibility to communicate with my constituents, and I simply felt like we needed to move forward. We did, and I’m glad we did.”