Congressional pay-per-view?

A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal noted that White House officials are hoping members of Congress will return to work “having heard an earful from voters about jobs and the economy.” Of course, that assumes the American mainstream can talk to their representatives at all.

It appears that in some cases, Republicans only want to interact with voters willing to pay for the privilege.

It will cost $15 to ask Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) a question in person during the August congressional recess.

The House Budget Committee chairman isn’t holding any face-to-face open-to-the-public town hall meetings during the recess, but like several of his colleagues he will speak only for residents willing to open their wallets.

Ryan, who took substantial criticism from his southeast Wisconsin constituents in April after he introduced the Republicans’ budget proposal, isn’t the only member of congress whose August recess town hall-style meetings are strictly pay-per-view.

The Politico piece points to similar practices being used by Republican Reps. Ben Quayle (Ariz.) and Chip Cravaack (Minn.).

In fairness, these far-right politicians aren’t literally selling answers to constituent questions, but the reality isn’t that far off. In practice, Ryan, Quayle, and Cravaack are partnering with private organizers to host pseudo-public events. The members kinda sorta look like they’re making themselves available to voters, but the organizers put a price tag that raises money and discourages potential critics.

And what about those voters who don’t want to pony up just to talk to their member of Congress or can’t afford a ticket? They’re out of luck. Try sending a letter that will be read by an office assistant who will gladly send you a nice form letter in response.

“After Republicans voted to gut Medicare, and other vital programs, while protecting tax breaks for millionaires and corporations, it’s not surprising that they would not want to face their constituents in an open forum,” MoveOn.org Executive Director Justin Ruben told Politico. “There seems to be no limit to how much our government is for sale.”

I can appreciate the temptation for politicians. In this day and age, confrontations with angry voters can be embarrassing — and widely disseminated.

But hiding behind entrance fees is undemocratic. I’m trying to imagine the outrage if, in August 2009, House Democrats announced they were scrapping open town-hall meetings, and would only talk to those willing to buy tickets.

I suspect the response would have been less than kind. Shouldn’t this be at least as scandalous, then?