CRS Memo Raises New Questions About Legality of HHS Web Site

Posted November 6, 2009 at 11:33am

A new Congressional Research Service legal memorandum is raising fresh questions about the legality of a Health and Human Services Web site that asks visitors to show their support for President Barack Obama’s health care reform effort, saying it could violate several federal statutes.

According to a CRS review of the “State Your Support— Web site released by Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Friday, the HHS may have violated at least two prohibitions in the fiscal 2009 omnibus spending on federal agencies engaging in lobbying or propaganda campaigns, as well as a criminal statute prohibiting such communications.

Grassley late last month raised concerns with the HHS site, which in addition to asking visitors to submit a form letter to Obama expressing their support for his health care reform agenda, includes a pledge to help advance reforms. The site also requests visitors’ e-mail addresses, ZIP codes, mailing address and phone numbers.

While agencies are allowed under federal law to use federals funds to disseminate “informational— or “educational— materials, the federal government cannot use funds to conduct grass-roots lobbying efforts or to spread propaganda.

Although the CRS does not directly accuse the HHS of any wrongdoing, it does acknowledge that there are potentially serious legal questions surrounding the Web site.

“It would appear to be a legitimate inquiry as to whether the department is expending federal funds for such ‘informational’ or ‘educational’ purposes, or rather expending funds to expressly urge the public to engage in a letter writing campaign involving an electronic submission of a form letter to a government official (sometimes referred to as ‘astroturf’ lobbying, that is, an artificially stimulated letter writing campaigns) urging the adoption of a particular public policy in legislation this year,— the CRS review said.

In a Nov. 2 letter to Grassley, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defended the agency’s letter-writing campaign, noting that “we have carefully reviewed the website and the applicable legal authorities and confirmed that this link is entirely legal and proper.—

Sebelius also says that “to the best of my knowledge, the personal information that individuals submit via ‘State Your Support’ has not been accessed or used by anyone else within HHS or outside of HHS— aside from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. ASPA has used that information to let visitors to the site know about health care events, Sebelius said.