The recent disclosure that the Department of Health and Human Services contracted with a public relations firm to try to enhance “messaging” with reporters has renewed a long-standing controversy over the propriety of spending taxpayer dollars to enhance the government’s public image.
A Congressional Research Service study last year discovered that at the very minimum, the Obama administration had spent a total of $4.4 billion on outside advertising contracts between fiscal 2009 and 2013, including $892.5 million in the final year. That total didn’t include other in-house advertising and promotional activities that could greatly add to the total cost. The biggest spenders in 2013 included the Department of Defense ($419 million), HHS ($197.4 million), the Department of Education ($128.8 million) and the Department of Veterans Affairs ($61.8 million).
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“Americans have long been of mixed mind about advertising,” the study noted, especially when it comes to government efforts to alter their perceptions of the quality of government or promote specific policy issues. “Many individuals also believe that government should not needlessly or wantonly spend taxpayer money, and that citizens should be thrifty and self-reliant.”
While critics generally discount government spending on public service announcements that inform citizens about services available to them, they frequently object to government “messaging” to advance the policy agenda of a president or overcome adverse publicity about a department or agency.
In the latest dustup, Senate Budget Committee Chair Mike Enzi (R-WY), has demanded that the Office of Management and Budget provide him with precise figures on the cost of an HHS agency contract with the Edelman public relations firm, and – more broadly – how much the administration has spent this year on outside advertising services.
The Washington Post reported this week that the Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration was attempting to “refine their agency messaging” with reporters. Edelman – a prominent public relations firm – was retained to conduct a study on ways to better influence reporters covering the agency. “Our clients are national government agencies within the health industry,” an Edelman public relations employee informed one journalist who was contacted for the survey, according to the Post. “We are hoping to gain insight into how our messages are being received by journalists.”
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Enzi said in a letter to OMB Director Shaun Donovan that he was concerned about how across the board government spending on these types of activities in light of a national debt in excess of $18 trillion.
“Unnecessary media relations spending is a cost that the nation simply cannot afford," Enzi wrote. "With the administration again asking Congress to raise the federal debt limit, it is essential that the Executive Branch avoid spending on unessential and inappropriate activities, and that Congress be made aware to the extent that such spending continues to occur."
Enzi added that agency spending on public relations activities is "largely a black box," and that the Congressional Research Service had trouble pinpointing exactly how much was being spent. He also noted that this spending continues despite several laws that aimed at discouraging government spending on "publicity or propaganda purposes," or to influence legislative outcomes.
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According to the CRS figures extracted from the Federal Procurement Data System, here is how much the Obama administration spent at a minimum on outside advertising contracts during the first five years the president was in office:
FY 2009 -- $1.18 billion
FY 2010 -- $946 million
FY 2011 -- $750 million
FY 2012 -- $700 million
FY 2013- $892.5 million.
The OMB has not yet responded to Enzi’s request for more data, according to a spokesperson for the Senate Budget Committee.