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Cantor Group Toes Fine Line

The new policy group spearheaded by House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) to reshape the battered GOP complies with a tangle of competing ethics rules through a careful allocation of campaign dollars and House resources.

Cantor launched the National Council for a New America in late April, combining the efforts of House and Senate leaders with former and current state officials to reach out to voters around the country through a series of high-profile town-hall-style meetings.

According to Rob Collins, Cantor’s deputy chief of staff, and Jan Baran, an ethics attorney with the law firm Wiley Rein who is advising the GOP effort, the National Council for a New America is composed of two distinct bodies: an informal Member caucus of House and Senate lawmakers, and an advisory group of current and former Republican governors as well as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

But marrying the two groups in a way that is compliant with the ethics rules has been a tricky endeavor, with Cantor and his staff organizing both entities.

Although the House Ethics Manual states that Members are allowed to establish informal caucuses, the groups “are dependent on the support of individual Members for their existence— and cannot spend official office allowances or use House office space.

By comparison, “Congressional Member Organizations— — typically referred to as caucuses, task forces or coalitions — are permitted to utilize House employees and office funds, according to the Ethics Manual.

Collins asserted that House rules allow the new organization, described in a press release as “a forward-looking, grassroots caucus,— to utilize assets including Cantor’s leadership staff and House Web site, as long as no staff member or other resource is dedicated solely to the new group.

“We are not supported directly by disbursements of official allowance,— Collins said. “This is not the sole function of anyone in this office.—

House resources utilized by the NCNA include the group’s Web page, which resides on Cantor’s House leadership site and was designed by a Cantor aide, according to Collins.

While the fledgling organization has been promoted with the address WeThePeoplePlan.org, visitors to the site are automatically redirected to a page on the Republican Whip’s Web site, at republicanwhip.house.gov/WeThePeople.

“This Member is using this official Web site for these purposes that are connected to his official duties,—said Baran, who compared the site to a Member’s profile on networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook.

Visitors to the site are initially greeted by a collage of GOPers, including House and Senate lawmakers and Republican governors, beneath the words “National Council for a New America.—

Because informal caucuses are prohibited under House rules from extending membership to non-lawmakers, Collins said the NCNA has sought to highlight the division between the Members of Congress who comprise the group and the mostly outside Republican leaders who serve as the group’s “National Panel of Experts.—

“There’s literally a line between the two. It says national panel of experts’ and it says national council,’— Collins said of the NCNA Web site’s “National Leaders— page. “Because of the numbers of Members we have, their pictures may be smaller, but literally there is a clear line dividing the two— groups.

Collins also pointed to the April 30 letter announcing the NCNA’s formation, noting that only House and Senate lawmakers appeared as signatories, while names of those serving on the expert panel appeared in the letter itself.

“We just have a group of people … who can help us craft policies of what we believe are the views of the American people,— Collins said.

According to the House Ethics Manual, advisory groups are permitted — “Thus, it is entirely appropriate for a Member (or group of Members) to constitute a group to advise them on any topic,— the manual states — although members of such groups are not permitted to use a Congressional office address or telephone number as a point of contact.

The NCNA Web page features biographies of both Republicans on the expert panel as well as House and Senate lawmakers, but it does not include contact information for any individual.

The site’s home page does allow visitors to fill out a form to nominate towns for the site of future meetings, as well as sign up for e-mail updates. Completing either activity leads visitors to a Web page on the Republican Whip Web site prominently displaying “The Office of the Republican Whip.—

Press releases regarding the group archived on the Republican Whip Web page list a Cantor spokesman, Brad Dayspring, as a contact, and include a House phone number.

In the meantime, expenses stemming from the NCNA’s inaugural event, held May 2 at an Arlington, Va., pizzeria, have been paid for out of campaign funds, Baran said.

“The only expenses that would be incurred are those that would be permitted to be paid, [under] both ethics rules and [Federal Election Commission] rules from a Member’s personal campaign account,— Baran said.

Collins referred to the House Ethics Manual, which states that Members are allowed to use principal campaign committee funds for food and beverage expenses, as well as room rental, sound system and even travel expenses for guest speakers, for “town hall meetings, briefings, caucus events, conferences, and other events sponsored by their Member office, whether in their congressional district or on Capitol Hill.—

“Either with a formal caucus or [an] informal organization, the House ethics rules do allow for the use of campaign funds for various expenses,— Baran said.

Many of the logistical details have yet to be worked out regarding the schedule of the NCNA. Where its next meeting will occur and who will attend are still in the works, but Cantor aides say the response to the idea has been overwhelming. More than 2,500 people have offered to host a town hall through the group’s Web site. Over the next 18 months, they hope to hold 15 to 20 of the events around the country.

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