Sen. Rob Portman (left) is launching an investigation from his Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subpanel, asking federal agencies for an accounting of public relations and advertising contracts dating back to October 2008.
Sources in both parties indicated Portman approached McCaskill with the idea but that the Missouri Democrat was enthusiastic about the subcommittee’s opportunity to get a broad view of how the White House has been using federal funds to pursue public relations opportunities. Though they concede that what the administration is doing likely is legal, committee aides said it is the panel’s responsibility to hold the government accountable and ensure that funds are being used effectively.
Senate pushback against the White House and how it spends funds to promote its own initiatives is not novel, however. In March 2005, Democratic Sens. Ted Kennedy (Mass.) and Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) sent a letter to President George W. Bush repudiating the use of taxpayer funds by agencies to produce and publicize what they said were misleading video releases. Earlier that year, the two Senators proposed legislation to permanently ban taxpayer funds for “propaganda,” and they asked the Bush administration to return the almost $240,000 the Education Department paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to tout No Child Left Behind.
Asked Tuesday about the inquiry into the current White House, Lautenberg said he believed the circumstances surrounding his efforts were different.
“There’s a difference, and, of course, I carry a bias, but in my recollection, I don’t think there’s anything that the Obama administration is doing that didn’t have some public benefit. And, as I remember, going back to 2005, I don’t remember any of the benefits that their propaganda might have brought,” the veteran New Jersey lawmaker said.
That, of course, is the key question facing lawmakers who launch these sorts of inquiries: where to draw the line between the appropriate use of funds for public education and general information and the inappropriate use of dollars to promote a White House’s political agenda.
Aides on the subcommittee say they are not yet sure of the answer to that question and that it will be clearer if the Obama agencies comply. But Republicans say two reports helped pique their interest: one in 2010 from House Government and Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), which Senate sources say was not comprehensive, and another effort last year from the conservative group Judicial Watch, which obtained documents from HHS on its PR spending through the Freedom of Information Act in 2011.
Lautenberg dismissed the idea that the Obama administration has committed any wrongdoing.“It’s not raw politics, which these folks have a way of doing for a long time,” he said of Republicans