Washington Prowler

His Own Whip

Rep. Eric Cantor doesn't always seem to get it.

By 7.6.10

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After House Republican Leader Rep. John Boehner suggested that he was considering shutting down the House Republican Policy Committee and returning the committee's budget for next year to the taxpayers as part of a broader budget cutting campaign in the House, the staffs of House Whip Rep. Eric Cantor and his deputy, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, leaked the idea to the media in an attempt to scuttle the plan, in part, say House leadership staffers, because the plan might have overshadowed parts of a planned PR offensive the House whip and others had in the works.

Boehner and Cantor and their respective staffs have been competing to launch various policy strategies and campaigns for the 2010 election cycle. Boehner's office is expected to put forward a broad "Contract for America" like plan in late August, and Cantor has a book about a GOP agenda coming out later this summer, for which he has built an extensive, national book tour.

Late last week, as several Capitol Hill reporters began inquiring about Boehner's suggestion -- made during a private leadership meeting -- a Boehner aide sent an e-mail to all leadership staff complaining about the leak. The committee could not be shut down without support from the full House Republican conference, say the staffers, and the broader plan had not been fully developed.

"The idea wasn't complicated," says a House leadership source. "One of the reasons Republicans lost the majority was that we became bloated and spent taxpayers' money like drunken sailors during our time in [majority] leadership. We lost touch with our base and our fiscal conservative roots. The American people don't trust us quite yet to be responsible and make the tough fiscal choices, so Rep. Boehner felt there were some steps the leadership and conference could make leading into the fall that would illustrate how we would lead if voters were to give us another opportunity."

Boehner and House Policy Committee chairman, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, had discussed the notion of shutting down the policy committee in late June, which would largely have been symbolic until the next fiscal year came around. But the broader plan would have involved identifying additional spending cuts on the House Republican side and challenging the Democrat leadership to find similar savings.

"We're talking millions of dollars that is wasted up here by Democrats on unnecessary staff, consultants, travel, projects and studies, at a time when our constituents are struggling to get by, cutting their own budgets and restraining their spending," says another House GOP leadership aide. "We should try to do the same."

McCotter argued that the policy committee was a good place to start since it had completed its work for the year -- a document that laid out a broad Republican ideological and philosophical agenda for 2010, and which has been shared with state and local Republican Party officials -- and that it largely was a redundant committee since so much policy development took place in other areas of the Republican conference.

But Cantor and McCarthy apparently saw things differently. Perhaps most telling, during the leadership meeting where Boehner floated the idea, Cantor suggested that if the funds wouldn't be spent on a policy committee, then he could use the funds for other projects. And this inclination to spend is what bothers a number of House members about the man who would be poised to serve as leader of House Republicans if they were to gain a majority in 2010 and John Boehner were elevated to the Speaker's chair.

"If we want the opportunity to really make a difference in this place, and bury the Democrats and their ideas for a long time, we can't afford to run this place like we did in 1996," says a veteran GOP House member. "Are there places where we need to spend and hire staff? Yes. No one wants to hamstring a committee from doing the work that has to be done. But we also need to show the American people we can be accountable, that the spending cuts and austerity start here. And with all due respect, I don't know that Eric really gets that."

Cantor has shown a remarkable ability to recruit and support Republican House candidates, and to raise money nationally for their campaigns. His "Young Guns" program was a highlight of the 2010 election cycle long before it appeared the GOP might be looking at a potential "wave" election cycle. But Cantor has also shown a weakness for poor messaging and a fondness for the trappings of power.

Cantor sought a national platform by putting himself front and center with the founding of the National Council for a New America, an organization set up more than a year ago and intended to provide the vision for Republicans in the 2010 and 2012 cycles. But Cantor chose to launch the group's first "listening tour" event in Arlington, Virginia, less than five miles from Washington, D.C., an odd choice for a group that was supposedly not going to be tied to the Beltway crowd.

Prior to that, Cantor undercut his own party during the votes over TARP, when instead of crediting conservative principles for the initial defeats of TARP in the House, he claimed the victories came as a reaction to Speaker Nancy Pelosi's anti-Bush Administration/Republican tirade on the House floor.

Cantor has clashed at times with Boehner, as well as McCotter, who has been criticized for not having the policy committee do enough in the policy arena. Those criticisms have largely been generated by allies of Cantor, who has over the past four years built out policy working groups inside his office. Cantor's efforts in policy weren't rogue operations. They were organized with the approval of Boehner and the larger leadership team, but the activities, and those of other House Republicans, limited the areas of focus for the policy committee.

"Ironically, it's Cantor's insistence on running policy that made the committee obsolete," says a House member who has served on two separate policy working groups organized by Cantor. "Maybe McCotter could've done more, but the policy committee today is very different from what it was ten years ago, largely because we have members who wanted a bigger hand in policy development."

Cantor will be touring to promote his book on a new Republican agenda, at the same time that Boehner and other leaders will be putting the finishing touches on the House Republican agenda for the fall campaign, a project that has been run largely out of Boehner's office. "That's the kind of thing we're talking about when we complain about Eric," says a House leadership aide. "I'm sure the book will help. It just isn't what we might have done had we all been working together." 

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