America Speaking Out — with America footing the bill

AMERICA SPEAKING OUT — WITH AMERICA FOOTING THE BILL…. Sixteen years ago, House Republicans put together the “Contract With America” based on polls and focus groups. This year, House GOP leaders are launching the “America Speaking Out” project, in the hopes of crafting a new “contract” based on public feedback and interactive social media.

The biggest difference, however, is that this time, American taxpayers are being asked to finance the partisan initiative.

Republican officials will kick off the project with an event in D.C. this morning, and it’s been described, accurately, as an initiative intended to help the GOP craft “a set of policy items that Republicans would pursue if they won back control of the House in November.”

When asked about this yesterday, GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) was vague about financing. “‘America Speaking Out’ is not a project of the political” campaign arm, Pence said, reluctant to go into further detail.

Now we know why. Republicans are claiming that the project will be kept separate from their campaign committees, and can therefore be financed by taxpayers.

Congressional scholar Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it is not credible to say the agenda is not intended for the 2010 campaign cycle.

“Its only purpose is as a campaign document,” Mann said in an e-mail. “They are in no position to shape policy before the election. It is a defensive move, to deal with the criticism that they are the party of ‘no.'”

But Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said Republicans have to maintain that the document is not meant for the campaign trail, even if it is only a charade. “If they don’t, they are in danger of using taxpayer funds for campaign purposes,” she said.

But given what Republicans have already stated publicly, the notion that the “America Speaking Out” project isn’t intended for the midterm elections is ridiculous.

This isn’t even thinly veiled — the partisan, campaign-related function is as plain as day.

House Republicans will unveil on Tuesday a Web site they will use to solicit policy ideas from the public, the first step in the development of a platform that they will present to voters this fall. […]

The Web site formally starts the GOP’s process of touting its own vision and policies to voters, after spending most of the last 16 months bashing President Obama and congressional Democrats.

And Republicans, aware that some of the anti-Washington fervor among the public is aimed at both parties, don’t want to simply put out a formal agenda without buy-in from voters, particularly conservatives. So, along with the site, House Republicans will hold town hall meetings around the country starting next week. They want to use this process to get ideas for the “Contract With America”-style policy document they are set to release closer to the election, which would list principles and proposals that Republicans would adopt if they won control of the House.

Keep in mind just how transparently silly the argument is. Republicans will argue that all of this — the website, the social media, the town-hall events, and the document to be released in September — has nothing to do with the party’s campaign efforts in the fall. They have to maintain this fiction with a straight face, in order to justify use of our money to pay for the effort.

This probably isn’t the ideal way for the GOP to prove it can be trusted to spend the public’s money wisely.