ATLANTA – If the hostile town hall meetings over health care reform proved anything, it is this: face-to-face democracy still matters, even in the era of Facebook and Twitter.
But the shooting on Saturday of an Arizona congresswoman at a constituent meeting could have a chilling effect on such grassroots encounters — and drive lawmakers even further from the people they represent.
Members of Congress on Sunday pledged not to let the bloodshed in Tucson keep them from mingling with the public. Even so, some said they'll give extra thought to precautions, like a visible police presence and more secure locations for public events.
"I think it needs to be a wake up call for members who have treated ... their own personal security in a cavalier way," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Making it harder for people to access those who represent them could give credence to a rallying cry of the tea party movement: the "ruling class" of government in Washington is too far removed from voters. Town hall events and meet-and-greets remain one of the last vestiges of old-fashioned grassroots politics, a rare chance in the technology-crazed culture for voters to have a give-and-take with the men and women they send to Capitol Hill.
Those events have become more and more scripted, with participants screened by organizers in some cases. In others, interest groups deploy teams of activists to create a hubbub tailor-made for the TV cameras.
And members of Congress say informal gatherings — like the "Congress on your Corner" supermarket stop U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was hosting when she was attacked — are invaluable in helping them break out of the Beltway mindset and connect with constituents.
"I like to look at people eye-to-eye, to see what they really believe and what they're thinking," said U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga.
"That is immensely helpful to me as an elected official. And if someone actually takes the time to come to an event, that carries extra weight."
Experts say social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter have become increasingly important ways for busy members of Congress to communicate with the public.
"It's cheaper, it's easier and it's effective," said Tim Groeling, chairman of the communications studies department at UCLA and a specialist in political discourse.
Even campaigns are frequently conducted above voters' heads these days, with pricey television ads and cheap e-mail blasts chosen over time-consuming handshakes on the campaign trail.
That makes the face-to-face opportunities that remain even more critical, said a political communications expert at the University of Pittsburgh.
"They are seen as more honest and more meaningful," Gerald Shuster said.
They can also be more raw. Witness the health care reform hearings that played out in the angry summer of 2009.
Veterans of Capitol Hill — like then-U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — were jeered and heckled. Citizens showed up with guns on their hips and placards likening President Barack Obama to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
That vitriol has now become ingrained in the fiercely partisan political landscape, lawmakers say.
"The temperature has obviously risen dramatically," said U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.
And the shooting of Giffords in Arizona will impact congressional members' behavior — even if they won't admit it, Miller said. Giffords, 40, a Democrat, was shot in the head and is in critical condition. Six others were killed in the rampage.
"I think every member is going to rethink things with their family and their staff," Miller said. Very often our offices come under threats, but now you have to begin to take those threats very seriously."
U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., said House leaders and the sergeant at arms hosted a conference call with members of Congress Sunday and urged them to be vigilant and let local police know of their whereabouts. They had received similar advice at the height of the health care hearings, he said.
Bishop — who was an early target of the angry health care hearings in his Long Island district — told The Associated Press that while he cannot prove it, he believes that virulent political rhetoric contributed to the attack on Giffords.
"There can only be so many times that an unbalanced individual can hear that his president is a socialist and that his Congress is trying to take away his individual liberties before he takes matters into his own hands," Bishop said.
Amy Morton, a Democratic activist from Macon, Ga., said she worries the shooting and the harsh rhetoric in politics generally will mean fewer opportunities for face time with her elected officials.
"That would be such a shame," Morton said. "And if you are relying on a Facebook and Twitter and the Internet-based method of communicating, you are eliminating a whole slice of voters who may not have the technology or be as engaged in the process."
Some in Washington said it was imperative for members to remain accessible to voters back home.
"All the way back in 1968, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, I remember that Governor Rockefeller of New York went back to California, started campaigning right away because he wanted to reassure the American people that people who want to be elected will be out with the people," U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said on CNN on Sunday.
"So, I'm going to be at the basketball game on the front row. I'll be in the grocery store in a few minutes. I mean, we'll be out just like elected officials are supposed to be."
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