The Obama administration got its hand slapped last year with the revelation that government agencies had spent literally billions of dollars promoting themselves with the public and news media in contravention of federal rules against just such activities.
A Congressional Research Service study revealed that the administration had spent at minimum a total of $4.4 billion on outside advertising contracts between fiscal 2009 and 2013 – including $419 million for the Pentagon, $197.4 million for the Department of Health and Human Services and $128.8 million for the Department of Education. More recently, The Washington Post reported that an agency of DHS had contracted with the Edelman public relations firm “to refine their agency messaging” with reporters.
Now we learn that the Environmental Protection Agency spent public funds as part of a “covert propaganda” campaign to promote a controversial proposed Clean Water rule. According to a new ruling by the Government Accountability Office, EPA employees made wide use of social media to urge the public to get behind President Obama’s new rule, which was designed to protect the nation’s streams and surface waters.
The New York Times, which first reported on the controversy, said on Monday that the GAO’s findings “served as a cautionary tale to federal agencies about the perils of getting to active in using social media to push a cause.” But it also highlights an anything-goes attitude within the administration about using public funds to promote the interests and agenda of the president.
“GAO’s finding confirms what I have long suspected, that EPA will go to extreme lengths and even violate the law to promote its activist environmental agenda,” Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Jim Inhofe (R-OK), said in a statement Monday.
While there’s nothing wrong with agencies tooting their own horns about services they provide and policy initiatives, it is against the law for them to engage in sub rosa lobbying, propaganda or grass-roots efforts to promote new policies without disclosing the source of the advertising and lobbying.
According to GAO, EPA officials launched a sophisticated social media campaign on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Thunderclap to overcome opposition to its clean water rule. The EPA said the rule – now under legal challenge – would prevent the pollution of water sources. However, farmers, business groups and Republicans denounced it as another example of the president’s executive overreach.
The EPA hasn’t quantified the amount of public funding that was spent on employees developing the lobbying effort and posting messages on social media platforms – only that the agency had spent $64,610 on video and other graphic assistance in making the government’s case. The GAO has requested that the EPA go back and calculate the total cost to the taxpayers of the illegal conduct.