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Manufacturing tours, not town halls, are the congressional activity of choice

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 24, 2011 - As area members of Congress have fanned across the state for this month's recess, they're all business. Preferably, small business.

Not town halls.

Republican or Democrat, the common thread is striking.

Instead of potentially raucous town halls open to the public, Missouri's U.S. senators -- Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill -- are spending this August touring manufacturing plants and other businesses around the state.

Ditto for most area members of the U.S. House, including Democrat Russ Carnahan and Republican Blaine Luetkemeyer.

Any groups they're addressing are most likely impromptu sessions with the business' workers, or roundtable discussions scheduled with local business leaders.

On Wednesday, for example, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., spent the morning holding four roundtables -- ending with a noon event in St. Charles at Novus International, a firm specializing in health and nutrition research. 

Carnahan spent Wednesday morning at a Shelter Works, a St. Louis-based manufacturer of fiberglass shelters.

Tuesday found Carnahan at in southwest St. Louis County touring the facilities of Seiler Instruments, which specializes in advanced scientific equipment, such as microscopes and projection devices used in planetariums. At the same time, McCaskill was in north St. Louis visiting Dial Corp., the soap and toiletries manufacturer.

In all three cases, the officials are in the midst of a string of pro-business stops that are slated to go on for days. Most are open to the press, but not the general public.

McCaskill bills her events the "Missouri Manufacturing Jobs Tour,'' and notes that it began a couple weeks ago. Blunt has been holding his business roundtables almost daily for more than a week, with the final tally close to two dozen.

U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, also has been meeting with business groups, some in the St. Louis area. U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, has addressed several large crowds representing labor or the elderly.

In an interview at Novus, when asked to compare the roundtables with town halls, Blunt explained that he thought the roundtables fit in with his current objective. "An event like this is more focused on job creation," he said, "when the creation of private-sector jobs should be the No. 1 priority."

After a private tour of the research business, Blunt held a roundtable discussion on economic and environmental issues with close to 20 invitees from business, education and government. They included St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann.

Tuesday at Seiler, Carnahan said his focus is pro-business, and not anti-town hall. "I've done regular town halls,'' the congressman said, citing several he held this spring.

He was targeting businesses this month, Carnahan continued, to highlight small businesses displaying "innovation in the private sector."

"You get to see people successfully making things here at home,'' Carnahan explained.

Controlled interaction

But Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said he believes that -- for many members of Congress, locally and otherwise -- there are dual aims at work.

"It's both about jobs, and avoiding open-ended town halls,'' the professor said.

Visiting businesses, he emphasizes, "is pretty typical, and what candidates do" to illustrate that they care about jobs. That's true whether they're running for mayor, Congress or the White House, Robertson said.

But what's different this summer, he continued, are the poll numbers showing that the public holds members of Congress -- regardless of party -- in particularly low esteem.

"The lack of town halls is a real indicator of how tough the climate is for incumbents in Congress right now," Robertson said.

With the public angry over federal spending, proposed cuts, potential tax hikes and possible curbs in popular programs, Robertson said that members of Congress in both major parties would prefer to avoid town halls where, for the past two years, they often face "hostile questions from left or right field."

So instead, they opt for what he called "a much more controlled form" of interaction with the public.

When a politician tours a business, said Robertson, they're "more certain what the message is going to be coming out of it."

That's not entirely true. Carnahan, for example, ended his Seiler tour in the cafeteria, which was packed wall-to-wall with employees eager to meet a congressman -- and to pose a question or two.

(Seiler's plant is in the 2nd District, but chief executive Rick Seiler estimates that at least half of his 180-person workforce resides in Carnahan's 3rd District.)

Questions and answers

Although the queries were respectful, a few were pointed. All the questioners were well-informed.

The topics included:

-- What's the congressman going to do now that his district was eliminated during the legislative redistricting? ("I'm definitely running for Congress next year,'' Carnahan said, while allowing he has yet to decide which district he will run in.)

-- What's his opinion of how to resolve the federal budget deficits? (Carnahan replied that he backed a mix of revenue increases and spending cuts. He called for reforming the federal tax code.)

-- Will there be significant cuts in federal defense spending? (Seiler has a number of sensitive contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense. Carnahan said he believed much of the defense savings would come from winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.)

A spokesman for McCaskill said her tours have enabled the senator to "hear input from manufacturers on commonsense ways to create more jobs and stop jobs from being shipped overseas," her staff said.

She also has tried to hold town hall-style gathering with workers at many of her business stops. Communications director Trevor Kincaid said that health care and the federal debt ceiling were among the top topics at Dial, which had barred reporters from accompanying the senator during her tour.

The chief difference between such gatherings and traditional town halls, he added, is that "she's going to see them, rather than them going to see her.''

McCaskill has found herself in particularly spirited town halls over the past two years, such as an August 2009 event in Jefferson County.

In her talks now with workers, "there's definitely an exchange'' of ideas and views, Kincaid added. It's just "a different style'' from traditional public town halls.

Kincaid observed that at times, regular town halls can attract "people with an agenda'' from left or right, who seek to monopolize the event.

During Blunt's roundtable at Novus, the discussion focused on federal regulations and government debt. Blunt believes there is too much of both. He reaffimed his support for a federal balanced budget amendment, while candidly predicting that the measure wouldn't garner the necessary 67 votes in the Senate needed to send the proposal on to the states for possible ratification.

Blunt called for an 18-month moratorium on new federal regulations, and offered cautious hopes about the congressional 12-member "supercommittee'' charged this fall with coming up with $1.2 trillion in cuts. The audience chuckled when Blunt said he had been "less optimistic after they put the people on it."

Not everyone is happy with this month's lack of town halls.  A progressive coalition of labor, elderly, community activists and the unemployed are holding their own town hall in Ballwin on Wednesday within a block of a local office for U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood. A spokeswoman said the town hall is to protest Akin's decision not to hold any.

Akin's staff replied in a statement that the congressman, "who regularly meets with many constituents, groups and business owners, agrees that jobs and the security of American families should be the number one priority in Washington, which is why he has worked assiduously to reduce wasteful government spending and eliminate needless and burdensome regulations on job creators..."

Meanwhile, the business stops also appear to influence the politicians as well. Carnahan, for example, appeared to embrace the same language that Blunt often has used to characterize his talks with businesses. Echoing Blunt, Carnahan said that business executives seek more "certainty'' from the federal government when it comes to tax and regulatory policy.

"Small businesses are the single best job-creators,'' Carnahan added.

That's a sentiment both parties can agree on.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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