WASHINGTON, D.C. (WMBF) - Representative Tom Rice says he works hard to reach the people of South Carolina's 7th District. He points to a report from The Hill that lists him as tied for 14th with Rep. Mark Sanford for the most town hall events since the start of 2015. The 48 events are the seventh-most for a sitting representative, a house of 435.
That report was published in March after a series of town hall meetings across the country turned into shouting matches over the Affordable Care Act. One of them was an event in Florence on February 22, where Rice had to ask the crowd to quiet down several times so others could ask questions.
After that, Rice held a series of meetings in the Pee Dee over a three-day period in April. He hasn't held an in-person, public Q-and-A forum since.
Fast forward to July 18. The New Yorker produced a story centered around Rice, titled Tele-Town halls help members of congress screen their constituents. The story focuses on a Myrtle Beach woman who participated in a call with Rice earlier this month, but didn't get her question answered.
The story cites Ezra Levin of the Indivisible Project who believes calls like this are "sham town halls," where people who don't agree with the speaker are "ignored or cut off."
Rice sees it differently.
"I try to use every mechanism available to me to reach out to my constituents as often as reasonably possible," Rice said in a phone call with WMBF News Thursday. "We do Facebook posts, we use social media, we use live town halls and we also use telephone town halls. Not because we're trying to hide from anyone, but because it's a great mechanism for reaching a large number of people in a little bit of time."
Rice explained the calls are screened, but his goal is to touch on the "major topics" people are calling about. In this call, he spent time on the Affordable Care Act, I-73 and Veterans Affairs.
"It takes me an average of about five minutes to answer a question," he said. "I normally get through 11 and 15 questions in an hour."
He said he doesn't see the questions before they're presented to him during the call. He says a group of five or six people take the calls, forward them to his communications director who selects a question to answer, then hands him a slip of paper with the person's name and location on it.
"There's no agenda for what questions that we take," Rice said. "I'm not looking for particular items. I'm not trying to duck any questions."
Rice said he'd hold more, but they do come at a moderate cost he would only define as "thousands of dollars."
"If we had 3,000 people in an auditorium, and the first ten questions I answer, let's say all 3,000 of them wanted to ask a question, one question that you answer will take care of 20 percent of those people," he said. "The next question you answer will take care of 20 percent of the rest. They're all generally concerned about the same big topics. There are a few there, ten to 20 percent, that are there for specific individual issues, and I'm not going to be able to get to every single one of them. You just can't."
Rice said that could be where the woman in The New Yorker story falls. She said she wanted to ask Rice how he planned to vote on H.R. 806. He actually voted in favor of the ground-level ozone standard change the day the story was published. It passed the House 229-199 nearly exclusively along party lines. The bill pushes back the deadline for ozone standard compliance nearly a decade.
As for town hall events, Rice says he is planning a series of live events in August, but has not finalized places or dates at this point.