House Republicans are launching a new website Tuesday to show their 2010 midterm policy agenda will stem directly from a conversation with Americans about what policies they think Congress should be tackling
The GOP teamed up with Microsoft to develop the site, "Americaspeakingout.com. " The online portal allows citizens to log on wherever and whenever they want to talk, blog or tweet about what issues they think are the most important priorities for Republicans to champion on their behalf.
California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy gave CNN an exclusive sneak peek at the site. He stressed that it aims to give some control to voters, who he says are frustrated with Washington for simply announcing proposals without getting feedback.
"This is a new townhall mechanism -- never used before," McCarthy said. "To me it's revolutionary, because it allows the individual to have greater control and say. For too long, people think nobody in Washington listens to them. This starts listening across the country and lets them provide the idea, but also debate the idea," McCarthy said.
House GOP Leader John Boehner of Ohio tapped McCarthy, 45, to craft the 2010 equivalent of the 1994 "Contract with America," the policy blueprint that helped Republicans win back the majority in Congress that year. But McCarthy said he doesn't want his effort to be compared with that '94 playbook and said he's using the "Commitment to America" as a temporary name that's likely to change after the public weighs in on the new website.
Although the software to do all these things is already available to the public -- Microsoft created a similar website for NASA -- Republicans point out that no other political organization has yet used it this way.
Users log on to "americaspeakingout.com" and create their own profile. The site is organized by subject matter -- for example you can click on "Fiscal accountability," as one topic . Under that heading there are several subjects, including, "waste," "tax reform," "budget process," "long term debt," and "government process." Other topics include "National Security," or "American Prosperity."
Under each section, users can submit their own policy proposal, respond to other people's ideas, or debate specific proposals. Next to each topic, users can click on Facebook or Twitter icons and expand the discussion onto those popular social networking sites.
Next to each idea that is posted, users can vote up or down on the idea -- similar to the "like it" thumbs-up feature on Facebook. Proposals can be sorted by how popular they are, or how many "votes" they receive.
Visitors to the site will be anonymous and those setting up profiles can choose their own names, but the site's managers will verify e-mail addresses and postal codes. There will be a filter to weed out offensive language
But while McCarthy notes that citizens can rank ideas, and anyone -- Republican, Democrat, or independent -- can engage in an ongoing debate, GOP leaders won't automatically use the proposals getting the most votes to form the basis of their 2010 midterm agenda.
"It's not 'American Idol' -- the top vote count gets it. This is about having a real discussion to solve a problem," McCarthy said.
To encourage people to come back and be part of an online community, users will accumulate "points" every time they submit an idea or engage in a debate. McCarthy compared this to getting frequent flyer points, and argued this appeals to people's competitive instincts to want to rack up the most points.
But users won't get prizes or free flights, just the bragging rights that they are helping the GOP write its agenda.
McCarthy stresses that the website is just one tool leaders will use to craft their policy agenda. Members are also planning townhall meetings over Congress' Memorial Day break to keep the discussion going and will hold a series of telephone town hall meetings over the summer.
The new GOP website is an official government project, supported by leadership staff and funded with taxpayer dollars. McCarthy maintains that the feedback leaders get from the site will lead to the development of legislation in early fall that Republicans will try to enact this year. "What we will do is submit these bills, and we will introduce them now. We will work to pass them now."
But McCarthy acknowledges that House Republicans don't have the votes in the House to pass these bills. The timing of unveiling the new website now, less than six months before the midterm elections, goes hand in hand with a political theme that Congressional Republicans will stress until Election Day -- the GOP hears the anger from Americans that Washington isn't listening to them and their platform will respond to that sentiment.