The U.S. Congress returns to Washington on Tuesday after its August recess.
Several Louisiana congressmen, who spent the recess traveling their districts and holding town hall meetings, summed up the feedback from their constituents in a word: frustration.
U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, held more than 10 town hall meetings in the northwestern part of the state and said voters displayed angst over the gridlock between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.
“They want to know what Congress is going to do about it,” Fleming said. “I just reassure them that unless we change our behavior in Washington that the very sick economy is not going to substantially improve.”
“They’re just angry at Congress in general and Washington in general because they feel we are incapable of solving problems,” Fleming added.
Fleming, a vociferous critic of the Obama administration, put the onus back on his constituents. “In 2012, it’s up to them to choose how this country is going to run,” he said.
Fleming said his crowds ranged from 250 in Shreveport to about 50 in Reeves. He said he also visited several nursing homes.
“These little towns in many cases have never had a congressman in them,” Fleming said. “Sometimes you get better turnout in the small towns, I think, than the big towns.”
Fleming advertised the town meetings in local newspapers. Not wanting to exclude Democrats, who likely differ with his lambasting of President Barack Obama, Fleming said he got a few takers.
“They appreciate that we’re willing to dialogue with them,” he said. “Sometimes we just agree to disagree.”
Fleming joined Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, of Louisiana, in one large town hall meeting where questions were screened. Fleming said he tried to make sure that questions weren’t repeated.
“You’d be surprised, we get some pretty bizarre questions,” Fleming said. “You get questions like, ‘When are you going to shut down the United Nations?’”
Freshman U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, is fairly new to town hall meetings since being elected in November, but said they had a familiar feel.
“I’m hearing the same thing I heard on the campaign trail, with more intensity,” Landry said. “They’re fed up with the federal government — period.”
“It’s more of a vetting and having the opportunity to blow off steam,” Landry added. “I have the same frustration and anxiety as them. I think the federal government is out of control.”
The town halls allow members to do some campaigning.
Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, of Metairie, said he spent time before constituents quoting Congressional Budget Office figures along with numbers from The White House to criticize the administration.
“They’re very perplexed why the president and other people in Congress don’t want to be serious about cutting spending and creating jobs,” Scalise said. “It gives you an even-stronger vigilance to go up there and fight because people are engaged.”
Several members, such as U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, used the opportunity to visit areas added to his district in the recent congressional redistricting. The economy and jobs led the conversation, he said.
“The uncertainty is driving the frustration level higher and higher,” Alexander said.
Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, used two “tele-town halls,” a phone link that allows him to reach 10,000 constituents at a time.
“It’s a really effective way to allow them to share their thoughts without disturbing them from their primary responsibility to their children and to their work,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy assured listeners that federal budget austerity comes with a price.
“I tell them, if you’re cutting, it’s going to be unpopular,” Cassidy said.
U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, reported that many of the concerns he received were from constituents worried about cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
“I’ve had a pretty good response,” Boustany said. “Not bickering or anyone in my face.”
Gerard Shields is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is GerardShields@aol.com.