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In Defense of "YouCut"

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, May 13 2010

Knocks against House minority whip Eric Cantor's (R-VA) new YouCut tool for crowdscourcing budgeting decisions essentially write themselves. But dig beneath the surface, argues Cantor's new media director Matt Lira, and there might be more there there.

(A primer on YouCut: the public votes on which of five government programs they'd like to see cut, and House GOP leadership pledges to take the winner to the floor for an up or down vote.)

First, the knocks. With an annual federal budget in the $3 billion and a federal deficit pushing the $13 trillion mark, slicing $52 million a year in Presidential Election Fund spending is like picking the basil off of a plate of four-cheese gnocchi and proclaiming yourself on a diet, as Media Matters has noted. Republican, in recent years, have been profligate public spenders, as Speaker Pelosi's office has encapsulated in chart form. What's more, as has been pointed out on RedState and by techPres contributor Colin Delany, asking people to vote via the web or mobile text message for which of the spending cuts already targeted by House Republicans to push on the House floor smacks of convenient gimmickry by a party that hasn't always embraced grassroots engagement and is being challenged by its right, Tea Party, flank. All the GOP is after, goes one critique, is forcing Democrats to have to make bad votes.

And yet. And yet. (Prepare your spitballs now.) Is it so easy to dismiss YouCut both as an experiment in opening up government and as a savvy, modern approach to shaping the political environment?

Cantor's new media director Matt Lira sees YouCut as, more or less, a two pronged online tactic. The first prong is using technology to crack open policy making, something that has a wide fan base these days, including the guy in the White House. "There such a temptation to view things through a partisan lens," said Lira, an RNC veteran who trained under Patrick Ruffini at the RNC. We spoke last night. "We owe it to ourselves to take a step back and say 'What does this mean in terms of the relationship between the public and the legislature at a tactical level?'" Lira went on. "There's a disconnect between people and representatives on both sides of the aisle, and this technology has the potential to heal that wound. That's not to say that this is the Holy Grail. But I do think it's a meaningful step forward. This is a way for us to demonstrate not only what our priorities are, but that the priorities of the public are, and it's about opening the doors to the legislature itself."

YouCut, at least, has proven itself popular. The accompanying hashtag has been lighting up Twitter. Says Lira, "The traffic to the Whip's website is higher today than its ever been under any Whip. It's higher, even, than the traffic during the health care debate." The Washington Post's Dave Weigel reports that as of last night, "7,000 activists had already cast YouCut votes."

Prong two is best thought of, perhaps, as a culture shift. Republican and Democratic caucuses aren't monoliths, as tempting as it might be something to see them that way. "Tribes" is perhaps a more useful frame. In his third year as Whip, Cantor, says Lira, is aiming to advance an agenda under his Economic Recovery Working Group (ERWG), and using technology to do it. Parliamentary procedure gives the minority party in the House a chance to force votes on occasion. YouCut winners will, each week, be offered on the floor of the House for up or down votes. Selling the idea of cutting government spending inside the GOP caucus is clearly an aim. Whether or not you believe there's a true political commitment to budget cutting in Cantor-world doesn't necessarily impact the political utility of putting a meme like "YouCut" out into the world.

"If you begin to focus on cutting, then it drives a culture around you that then leads to bigger things. Says the Denver native, "I'm almost astounded by the view that this is just a million dollars being wasted in a year. At what point do you stop putting drops in the bucket?" Cantor, who looks like the cross between an accountant and a programmer, has found a good amount of buy-in amongst some in his caucus. Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling drew press for YouCut in his local Dallas Morning News, with a spokesperson quoted as saying, "the debt and deficit are symptoms, spending is the disease. Members of his ERWG have been actively tweeting about it.

So have Democrats, chief among them Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer, the force behind the #GOPYouSerious? hashtag -- as in "Republicans had 12 yrs to address fiscal responsibility. They chose not to. No gimmick can erase their irresponsible record. #GOPYouSerious?"

On a strategic level, it's worth remembering that slashing government programs needn't be a big cut to shape a party's image as defender taxpayer dollars. The Republican Revolution of 1994 excised funding for the Office of Technology Assessment. The message there was the this new GOP was willing to cut close to the bone, even in their own institution. Then again, people have been lamenting the loss of the OTA ever since.

Lira says that the plan is to run YouCut every week until the end of the year.