House Republicans Use Social Media to Draft Agenda

Video of House Republicans launching America Speaking Out initiative.
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House Republicans, eager to move beyond the divisive intraparty fights that marked the primary campaign, will unite around a new governing agenda Thursday in an attempt to harness the energy of the Tea Party movement and voters' discontentment ahead of the midterm elections.

While the legislative priorities in the plan are not expected to be new, what is notable sources say, is the process by which they were formed: based largely on the input from more than 100,000 registered users of the interactive online forum Republicans have branded "America Speaking Out."

Video of House Republicans launching America Speaking Out initiative.
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"People have been hungry for an outlet to have their voices heard," said House GOP spokesman Brendan Buck, who noted Tea Party members, in particular, have "felt ignored."

The high-tech strategy, which includes iPhone and Android apps, allows users to post ideas which can be "liked" or "disliked" by other users, who can also add comments in a format similar to Facebook. California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who has spearheaded the effort, unveiled the initiative in May.

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"The idea was to make people feel like they are contributing to the agenda," said Nick Schaper, the House GOP director of new media. "We think this is opening up Congress in a way never done before."

Schaper said the project cultivated 16,000 "policy ideas" that garnered more than 800,000 "votes," both for and against. The most popular topics -- taxes, Congress, jobs, freedom and the Constitution -- mirror themes most often raised by the Tea Party, which has been agitating the GOP establishment.

Social media experts say "America Speaking Out" is the first time an entire congressional caucus has used an online town hall format to engage voters and build an agenda. Individual members have long used the Internet and social media tools to interact with constituents and develop priorities.

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"They're taking the conversations that happen through telephone, faxes and email in congressional offices individually and they're taking that public as a group," said Heather LaMarre, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Minnesota. "It's a new way of presenting a united front of House Republicans and has the appearance of giving people a direct link to Congress."

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LaMarre said "America Speaking Out" has also provided an indirect way for Republicans to rebrand Tea Party priorities as their top priorities without publicly embracing a movement that many opponents have sought to cast as extremist.

The new agenda is expected to include recent GOP proposals such as a proposal to keep tax rates at current levels for two years while cutting federal spending back to 2008 levels and another requiring bills to be posted on the internet 72 hours prior to floor votes.

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"This wasn't spurred by the Tea Party movement," said Schaper. "The transparency movement came about at the same time as the Tea Party movement… they fed on each other... The agenda is based on our values and we weren't going to compromise. This is not 'American Idol '- most votes makes it into the agenda."

Still it's clear Republians have been looking for ways to cater to Tea Party agitators who have proven they are not afraid to vote Republicans out of office. Some Tea Party activists have even been drafting their own agenda because they don't have faith in Republicans already in office.

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The House GOP election year legislative blueprint, to be revealed tomorrow, is also reminiscent of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's use of a 10-point "Contract with America" to fuel the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.

Although polls indicated that the 1994 election result was motivated more by animus towards President Clinton than by familiarity with the contract's provisions, Republican leaders found the document to be a useful governing tool as they led the first GOP House majority in 40 years.

Now with polls showing Republicans poised to take back the majority once again, they are hoping a document rooted in input gathered through social media will rally the base.

GOP members have aggressively utilized Facebook and Twitter to engage constituents in the two years since Democrats and Barack Obama won national attention for their use of social media tools during the 2008 campaign.

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"House Republicans demonstrate an unmatched ability to connect with the American people in the Internet's most popular communities," House Minority Leader John Boehner boasted in a press release in January.

Congressional Republicans do have more members registered on Twitter and have more Twitter followers than their Democratic counterparts, according to the site TweetCongress.org which tracks the data. Republicans are also the more active Tweeters, with Senate Republicans' Twitter handle "Senate_GOPs" averaging 8 tweets per day.

But Jonathan Askin, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and former member of President Obama's 2008 campaign technology task force, said Republicans' social media strategy is not as innovative as it may seem.

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"Republicans are just starting to realize the value of a social media network, but Obama was first to the table," Askin said.

Obama used online communities during the 2008 campaign to famously amass a network of more than 5 million e-mails, Askin said, and the White House has continued to use various social media forums to directly take the pulse of followers.

Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse has called the "America Speaking Out" initiative a "taxpayer funded partisan political gimmick."

Still, LaMarre said, whether voters' input through social media will meaningfully impact any agenda could be besides the point.

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"This is about controlling the message and swaying the public," said LaMarre. "This is the House Republican caucus emulating what Newt Gingrich did in the '90s to show, 'Oh, we're one big happy family here in the GOP,' giving the blanket illusion that if you vote for one you vote for all."
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