Returning From Recess: What We’ve Learned

As the current administration touts an agenda that is “Achieving Results for the American People,” Congressional recesses are shaping up to be the prime forum for constituents to check in with their elected officials to see what type of progress they actually feel and ask questions that impact their day-to-day lives.

Inside the Beltway, individuals watched wall-to-wall cable news coverage of townhalls where Members of Congress were no-shows to their scheduled townhalls, or were fielding tough questions from their constituents.

Here is a snapshot of what we heard during recess:

1. Healthcare

Constitutents participated in townhalls and tele-townhalls in huge numbers where they asked questions about healthcare and resisted the full repeal of Obamacare. Members who opted out of hosting public events brought in extra staff to help answer phones and conduct smaller-scale constituent meetings to address the influx of civic engagement.

2. Economy

Several members chose not to hold public forums and instead held “roundtables with businesses and meetings with constituents during the current recess.” Others heard about issues significant to their districts, like flood relief in Louisiana. Outside of healthcare, most concerns pertained to pocketbook issues, which representatives could answer.

3. Immigration/National Security

Upon the announcement of the controversial “Muslim ban” executive order, rallies immediately sprung up at airports across the country. Local activism has not waned since. Conversely, there has been an uptick in activism during recess: “One woman said she could not understand…oppos[ing] the presence of undocumented immigrants, given that the district was dependent on agriculture. ‘It’s so detrimental to our identity as a state and to the economy.’”

Some called these townhalls and voices an “astroturf,” but many quickly point to the large-scale engagement from the Womens’ March and the protests that erupted after the executive order on travel as key indicators that we are seeing an increasingly engaged electorate. In the end, Senators agreed that the civic engagement witnessed during recess included their own constituents.

Once recess concluded, members returned to Washington for what Republican lawmakers touted as a major milestone: President Trump’s joint address to Congress. The speech included responses to constituent outcries during recess. In the President’s address, we heard:

1. Healthcare

A path to an “Obamacare fix” which highlighted key phrases such as “access to coverage,” “stable transition,” “make sure no one is left out,” and “bring down the artificially high price of drugs.” Unironically, these are all key messages found in polling, such as Kaiser’s Health Tracking Poll, that shows a shift in popularity but also confusion as to what the law does and does not do. The President responded to town hall messages with:

“Tonight, I am also calling on this Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare with reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better healthcare.”

2. Economy

Given that needs and challenges vary by district, it was difficult to address the economy head-on with a one-size-fits-all response. However, the President offered jobs, infrastructure, and a strong military to boost the American economy, responding to town hall messages with:

“Dying industries will come roaring back to life. Heroic veterans will get the care they so desperately need. Our military will be given the resources its brave warriors so richly deserve. Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our very, very beautiful land. Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and ultimately, stop. And our neglected inner cities will see a rebirth of hope, safety, and opportunity. Above all else, we will keep our promises to the American people.”

3. Immigration/National Security

In response to recent court rulings, the administration has announced a new executive order on travel and immigration. The President responded to town hall messages with:

“My administration has been working on improved vetting procedures, and we will shortly take new steps to keep our nation safe – and to keep those out who will do us harm.”

Let’s all take a trip down memory lane and recall the townhalls of August 2009, which shaped the national narrative on what the Affordable Care Act would come to be. History is repeating itself, and given the activities over the past recess and the responses during the President’s joint address, you and your organization should prepare for opportunities to manifest during the next recess.

Some things never change – recess has always been the most important class.

Lauren Crawford Shaver is a Partner at FTP where she leads the firm’s Public Affairs practice.