Cantor’s Policy Group Has Faded Away

Posted May 5, 2010 at 6:36pm

On the home page of the National Council for a New America, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) greets visitors with the suggestion that they nominate their hometown to host one of the council’s national town hall meetings.

But the council isn’t coming to your town — the year-old group is defunct.

Cantor aides explained that the group has been “suspended” one year after its splashy launch in part because of the intense negative attention it received from the Democratic campaign committees and other groups after its introduction.

The NCNA was intended to be a traveling forum of Republican leaders who could engage the public in a broad-ranging discussion of hot-button issues.

Cantor spokesman John Murray said despite 5,000 positive news hits, the “relentless attacks from the left” became overwhelming to the whip office soon after its launch.

“I think now, we are in a suspended state,” Murray said.

“It’s very simple,” said Rob Collins, president of the American Action Network and Cantor’s former deputy chief of staff. “The NCNA dominated the national media so effectively that liberals in and out of Congress — including [Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington] — attacked it.”

Murray said the whip office did not have the resources to have “all hands on deck” for the NCNA and still handle the day-to-day Republican leadership responsibilities.

When the NCNA launched on April 30, 2009, following President Barack Obama’s speech marking his first 100 days in office, Cantor said the group of national Republican leaders would hold town halls around the country to allow average Americans to contribute to the conversation in Washington.

They got as far as Arlington, Va., where on May 2, 2009, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) joined Cantor inside a packed pizza parlor to discuss policy and answer questions from the crush of audience members and press assembled there.

Democrats dismissed the event as an exercise in politics and ridiculed the NCNA as an effort to rebrand the GOP with the same party leaders at the helm.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Crider wrote in an e-mail that the group’s demise was due to a lack of credibility.

“Congressman Cantor’s Republican rebranding effort quickly died because Republicans across the country didn’t find it credible, it was plagued by ethics problems, and Cantor was unable to do an event outside the Beltway,” Crider said. “It takes more than a press release from Eric Cantor to rebrand a Republican party dedicated to protecting the big banks, Wall Street, the oil companies and the insurance companies, at the expense of the middle class.”

Roll Call raised questions about the group’s funding at the time, but then-Cantor aide Collins and a Wiley Rein attorney said the NCNA was structured to comply with House rules, allowing it to use both campaign dollars and official House resources, despite rules prohibiting the mixing of these funding streams.

In July, the ethics watchdog CREW filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics seeking an investigation into whether Cantor and the organization violated House rules regarding funding for political organizations.

That ethics complaint appeared to be the last straw for the Cantor team, and the project was put on ice. There was never a second town hall event.

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said it was “ironic” that her ethics complaint was one of the reasons the group went dark since, at the time, Cantor’s office dismissed her complaint as politically motivated.

“I’m happy, good,” she said. “What we wanted was for them to stop because we thought it violated the rules. … I’m glad they agreed.”

Murray said that although the project is no longer the focus of the whip office, the response it received served as a launchpad for Republicans to recognize the importance of reaching out beyond the Beltway.

He added that some of concepts, such as listening to Americans outside of Washington, have been incorporated into the “Commitment to America” project led by Chief Deputy Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). That project is an effort by Republicans to craft a legislative agenda for the 112th Congress that they can use as part of their national campaign platform.

“Now, it’s important that the attention is going to the Commitment to America,” Murray said.

On the bright side, Members who lent their names to the project didn’t appear to miss it.

“Do they still do things?” McCarthy asked initially before inquiring as to what Cantor said about the council.

Asked whether he was pulling any of the concepts from the NCNA for the agenda project, McCarthy said that his group was incorporating ideas generated by Cantor’s economic working group as well as other GOP “solutions groups.”

Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), when asked whether he had heard anything about the status of the NCNA, said, “I have no information.”

Rules ranking member David Dreier (R-Calif.) didn’t offer any details, either.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “I think maybe it was merged with something else?”