Another congressional recess has passed without Sen. Richard Burr or Sen. Thom Tillis holding public town halls. North Carolinians have begged for these forums to address the uncertain future of the Affordable Care Act, yet it seems that our senators would rather be anywhere else.
Understandable disincentives against public town halls include safety concerns, disillusioned constituents and publicity risks. However, refusal to engage with constituents weakens our democracy. Perhaps our senators avoid public town halls to protect their interests. But can they truly represent us while refusing to hear our voices?
There is no substitute for in-person interactions. I admire teachers who hold conferences with intimidating parents. I respect public defenders who visit death-row inmates’ families to understand their clients’ backgrounds. My service to patients is rooted in close interactions. I value the opportunity to hold an oncology patient’s hand while looking him in the eye. Telemedicine would erase this connection.
I’m not looking to hold my senators’ hands, but to hold them to a standard that everyday people demonstrate in public service. It takes courage and humility to build empathy, to value voices that sting. Our tax dollars subsidize congressional recesses for this engagement.
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This month, House Speaker Paul Ryan defended the public town hall drought to prevent “a screaming fest.” Tillis has stated concern about “disruptions and media spectacles.” Burr’s staff informed me that Burr does not hold traditional town halls. Instead, Burr and Tillis held a joint telephone town hall in May with pre-selected questions.
Again, there is no substitute for in-person interactions. It’s a shame that Burr and Tillis cannot see my patients’ tears. My patients deserve their loyalty more than Sen.Mitch McConnell. We all do.
While our senators’ virtual town halls censor so-called “media spectacles,” their avoidance of jarring voices may translate into misperceptions. A recent study showed that politicians, especially Republicans, “overestimate constituency conservatism.” Such misperceptions may cause Tillis, who won by only 1.7 percent in 2014, to suffer consequentially in 2020. Despite a 17 percent national approval rating of the senate health care bill, most Republican senators did not handle it like a hot potato. As the Affordable Care Act faces potential repeal, do Burr and Tillis understand those of us whose lives are threatened?
Running for student body president in fifth grade, I campaigned to hold a baseball game versus teachers. Skeptical constituents approached me after I won, accusing me of an impossible promise. Their memories were ripe with another recent campaign promise: “Read my lips: no new taxes!” they taunted, “you’re like George Bush!” Their words shamed and motivated me.
Washington insulates senators better than my playground did, particularly if senators avoid town halls. My loyal campaign manager could have blocked classmates and then paraphrased their complaints to me. However, this would have diminished their impact.
As student body president, the baseball game was initially a non-starter. The principal would not displace academic time for an event that risked head injuries. However, I knew that giving up would force me to face unresolved resentment from classmates.
As on Capitol Hill, reaching across the aisle was key. I compromised for a kickball rather than a baseball to prevent injuries. I recruited enough teachers into an opposing team. I negotiated a recess extension for the game.
The Laurel Elementary Staff v. 5th Grader Kickball Game has continued over a quarter century. It is a legacy not only of mine, but the outspoken classmates who held me to my word. Regrettably, patients across North Carolina have been denied opportunities to influence Congress as my constituents once influenced me.
Sarah Squire, M.D. is a radiation oncologist practicing in Guilford and Rockingham counties.