The group behind the viral anti-Obamacare commercial starring a creepy Uncle Sam as a gynecologist is expanding its presence on Capitol Hill to lobby on behalf of Millennials worried about tech and privacy issues.
Generation Opportunity isn't your grandfather's lobbying shop. Its Arlington office is something out of a Silicon Valley start-up. ESPN plays on a muted TV next to a beer fridge stocked with Blue Moon and Yuengling while 20-something employees gather around a nearby ping-pong table to exchange ideas.
A good idea warrants a strike of the gong in the corner. Anyone who tramples creativity by dismissing an idea out of hand risks getting whacked with a ping-pong ball. Proposals on tech issues ranging from an Internet sales tax to the unlocking of smartphones are written on the wall.
“This is where we can make young people’s lives better by ensuring freedom in the technology they use,” said the group's 29-year-old president, Evan Feinberg. "There's a real potential here that we'll be a lost generation. ... People that are my age will have been in the economy for a decade or more in which there is no real economic opportunity."
If official Washington hasn't yet learned Generation Opportunity's name, it certainly is familiar with its work. While Congress was fighting over whether to defund Obamacare just as the new health care law was being implemented, Generation Opportunity produced a shudder-inducing ad encouraging young people to opt out of the program.
The ad showed Uncle Sam working as a OB-GYN. The message: Don't let government mess with your personal health care choices. It was seen by millions.
“People on the Hill know who [we] are,” said Kurt Brown, 24, the group's manager of legislation and coalitions. “We’re exploring different ways we can be useful to represent government overreach in other areas.”
Generation Opportunity now will try to influence tech legislation important to the first generation of Americans who grew up with computers, including government surveillance programs, copyright and patent law, privacy and the unlocking of smartphones.
Tech policy doesn’t have neat partisan divides. The revelation of previously secret National Security Agency surveillance programs drew support and condemnation from a hodgepodge of liberals, conservatives and libertarians. The Internet sales tax proposal has both bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition.
That lack of ideological definitiveness sometimes leads to unconventional coalitions. At the office recently, staffers spoke of reaching out to the ACLU on privacy legislation, or players in the electronic dance music scene, who, while not particularly political, have copyright concerns about their music mash-ups, which blend together the songs of others.
Another staffer talked about a "hack-a-thon" the group is sponsoring in Florida, where techies are given a limited amount of time to create electronic solutions to policy problems, such as education outcomes.
With 34 employees — including about 20 in Washington — Generation Opportunity is staffed by a mix of experienced Washington hands, many of whom were recruited from conservative bastions like Heritage Action, the College Republican National Committee and the office of libertarian Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich.
The group says its grassroots influence is growing. Its Facebook page lists 1.2 million “likes,” and 9,000 follow its national Twitter account. And as a result of its creepy Uncle Sam ad, about 500 Millennials across the country volunteered to host Obamacare opt-out events.
But for their ideological detractors, including The Nation’s Lee Fang, Generation Opportunity is merely a front for conservative billionaire activists, the Koch brothers. Freedom Partners, a conservative group funded in part by the Kochs, gave Generation Opportunity $5 million in 2011-12, Politico reported. The political website indicated that no one donor accounted for more than 10 percent of the Freedom Partner's funding.
"They're just a Koch front group designed to misinform young people about health insurance," Fang said. "The only opportunity created by their advocacy is for medical debt collectors and for the political consultants making their ads." (Disclosure: The author of this article in 2009 had a fellowship at the Institute for Humane Studies, a group partially funded by Charles Koch.)
Unlike traditional policy-minded, non-profit groups, Generation Opportunity doesn't spend most of its money on radio and TV ads. Instead, it spent $1.4 million of its $4 million annual budget on Facebook ads.
Feinberg declined to elaborate on the sources of his organization’s funding, except to say it includes a "variety of donors, both large and small.”
“We respect the confidentiality of our donors," he said.