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Tele-Town Halls Cross Ethical Lines

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The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus

One of these evenings, your phone is going to ring at suppertime. You're going to answer it, and there, (after a brief pause), will be your congressional representative.

Not a recorded message. The real thing. In the flesh. In real time and fine form, in a town hall meeting format, holding forth on the issues of the day for you and hundreds or even thousands of other constituents.

If you like, you'll even be able to join a queue of questioners, and maybe, (if your representative likes the look of your area code and address, and any other information about you that shows up on the screen), you'll be able to actually question the Great Oz him or herself.

The technology - a combination of robo-calling and voice-over-internet protocol telephony-was introduced just before the 2006 elections. Already more than 50 representatives and senators (primarily Republicans) are using it. More are signing up all the time.

At first blush, the benefits for those at the D.C. end of the line seem both benign and obvious. These "Tele Town Hall Meetings" save the time and expense of traveling to remote corners of the district to stay in touch with constituents. There is no real flesh to press - and no rubber chicken dinner to endure. Where, it might be impossible to get 100 people to a real town hall meeting on a Tuesday night in November, a Tele Town Hall Meeting can aggregate thousands of listeners - and "fine tune" the audience to make sure it shares the representative's views on the issues. If the representative wishes, everyone on the call can be pre-screened to be very happy.

Not quite so benign, though, is the fact that there are no reporters to document what gets said to whom - or in what tone. This kind of voice-over-internet is voice under the radar as well. This absence of the press seems to particularly appeal to right wing politicians who maintain what some might consider to be outside-the-mainstream positions on some issues.

The first ten representatives in the country to use "Tele-Town" technology were Jerry Moran, John J. Duncan, Tom Feeney, John Linder, Dean Heller, David Dreier, Dan Lungren, Ron Lewis, Tom Cole, and John Carter -- all Republicans. In Minnesota, right wing Republican Representatives Michelle Bachmann and John Kline were first to adopt it.

Further, there is a disturbing blurring of the line between Tele Town Hall Meetings as a way for incumbents to maintain constituency service and Tele Town Hall Meetings as a way for incumbents to skirt the regulations concerning communications with the electorate in the critical last few months prior to elections.

Currently, congressional mailing regulations prohibit members from using government funds for mass mailings in the 90 days immediately prior to primaries or general elections. Those regulations do not pertain to the new concept of Tele Town Hall Meetings. But if an incumbent is barred from using taxpayer funds (the franking privilege) to mail printed material in the months before an election, shouldn't he/she be barred from using taxpayer funds for Tele Town Hall Meetings during the same time period?

The answer is not clear at this point. What's more, since only a few representatives used the technology in 2006, it's questionable whether the issue was even explored at the federal level. To complicate matters further, state election laws are as varied and eccentric as the states themselves. In some cases, at the state level, using Tele Town Hall Meetings may be an entirely legal way for an incumbent to "smile and dial" right up until the polls close on Election Day. The fund raising ramifications are equally unclear.

Are Tele Town Hall Meetings a good thing or a bad thing? Like electronic voting, there's obviously great potential for abuse - and a clear-cut need for regulation. In an era when the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that corporate campaign cash is free speech under the First Amendment, don't hold your breath waiting for politicians to tighten the rules on using this new technology.

Until such time as the rules, regulations and ethics of Tele Town Hall Meetings are made clear we would all do well to ask ourselves whether we want to vote for someone who is reducing our already-compromised political discourse to a telephone marketing tactic better suited to selling time share condos or vinyl home siding.