June 6, 2012 – 11:30 p.m.

Republicans Face Off Over Ads On the Web, Including Facebook

Austin Scott, the conservative president of the House GOP freshman class, was so eager to trumpet his thrifty approach to office expenses that he used some of the savings to place an advertisement on Facebook.

“FACT: Austin Scott voted to cut his own budget 11.4%. Like my page and share your views today,” read the Georgia Republican’s ad, which was approved by the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards, commonly known as the franking commission.

For a new generation of lawmakers, the Internet is as important a communications tool as newsletters used to be. But Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., wants to prevent colleagues from using federal funds to buy Web ads like Scott’s, arguing that they may provide an unfair campaign edge for incumbents and that they can cost as much as $4.70 each time someone clicks on a link.

The House is due this month to consider a Flake amendment to the Legislative Branch appropriations bill (HR 5882) that would bar members from buying Web advertising with their $1.3 million to $1.4 million annual office allowances. Flake argues that advertising on Facebook or Google amounts to buying “some good old-fashioned name ID” and that it can easily cross the line into “classic election year propaganda and electioneering.”

The Appropriations Committee rejected Flake’s amendment. But he says the issue is becoming more important as the targeted use of Internet tools grows more sophisticated and more entrenched in campaign strategies. “We better nip this in the bud,” said Flake, who is running for the Senate. “This is a changing technology, and we better be ready and be ahead of the curve.”

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said lawmakers’ Web ads “represent a modern update on the power of incumbency.”

“Lawmakers are able to use taxpayer dollars to advance themselves and their re-election,” Ellis said. “When the country is facing a $15 trillion debt, we don’t need politicians finding new ways to spend taxpayer dollars, particularly on themselves.”

It appears that no congressional agency has tallied how much lawmakers are spending on Web ads. A check of forms filed with the Franking office by about 30 House members who spent more than $20,000 on mass communication during the first quarter of 2012 showed that almost two-thirds had bought Web ads during the past 12 months to publicize job fairs, town halls and other outreach events. Many lawmakers also tried to get constituents to “like” their Facebook pages or subscribe to electronic newsletters.

Scott’s ad on Facebook touting his willingness to cut office spending was one of more than a dozen he submitted to the Franking office. Aides to the congressman did not respond to requests for comment.

GOP freshman Tim Huelskamp of Kansas asked permission last August for a Google campaign designed to attract readers to surveys on the federal budget when they typed in search phrases including “debt ceiling,” “federal debt ceiling” and “Obama debt ceiling.” In the filing, his office said the costs could be as high as $4.70 for each click on the link that took visitors to Huelskamp’s site.

Huelskamp, a favorite of the tea party movement and a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee, estimated that he spent a bit more than $22,500 on Web ads but said his total spending last year was $143,000, or about 10 percent, below his allowance.

“You spend a very small portion of your budget reaching people, especially young people. We’ve seen the case here with this president — I give him credit for it — he’s really engaged young folks. And that’s who’s really using our new media,” Huelskamp said, calling Web ads “an opportunity to engage folks who traditionally have not been engaged in the system.”