Senator Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) introduced an amendment Thursday that would block 2013 Department of Health and Human Services funding unless the agency complies with Senators Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Claire McCaskill’s (D., Mo.) longstanding request for information concerning agency spending on public relations and advertising.
“This administration has spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to advertise the president’s unpopular health-care spending law,” said Senator Robert J. Portman (R., Ohio), ranking Republican of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight. “HHS should stop stonewalling on this bipartisan oversight inquiry, and just tell us how the money was spent,” said Portman.
Portman, who many GOP insiders believe sits high on Mitt Romney’s short list of potential vice presidents, joined Senator Claire C. McCaskill (D., Mo.) in February to submit inquiries to eleven federal agencies. Every agency has responded to the bipartisan inquiry but HHS.
Portman’s office released new information Wednesday suggesting that HHS has allocated as much as $183 million over the past three years on contracts for public-relations activities, but according to Portman this data cannot be confirmed without a complete response from HHS, which has not been forthcoming.
Documents obtained by JudicialWatch.org in Freedom of Information Act requests last year show that HHS has contracted with public-relations firms in the past. Among the documents released last year is an Acquisition Plan outlining the ad campaign and related correspondence dating from October 25, 2010, to February 10, 2011, between HHS staff and employees at Ogilvy Public Relations World Wide. According to the documents, HHS’s assistant secretary for public affairs (ASPA) contracted for $33.5 million in services from Ogilvy, and projected a $200 million ceiling on similar spending through 2014.
#more#The documents depict not only an expensive public-relations campaign — in one instance paying more than $90,000 in one week for Internet users to click a link to a government website — but also a White House bent on spending taxpayer money to promote the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Health Secretary Sebelius has ignored the request, and the press has ignored her taciturn refusal to hand over information about her agency’s public-relations spending — a significant change since 2004 in the attitudes of both the media and Democrats about government-sponsored propaganda.
In 2004, when an investigation uncovered that the Department of Education had paid media personality Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote No Child Left Behind, critics on the left howled. But unlike 2004, when no direct connection was found between George W. Bush’s White House and the Education Department’s contracts, HHS’s reported contracts cost orders of magnitude more and are riddled with the Obama administration’s fingerprints.
The acquisition plan, transmitted with the subject line, “National Multimedia & Educational Campaign & Grassroots Outreach,” states in the relevant part: “This contract will be used to create ad campaigns of any number for different subject areas and Presidential/Secretarial initiatives.” Task orders related to the plan show HHS asked Ogilvy to coordinate public-relations activities with President Obama’s speaking appearances and other events on the White House’s schedule.
Ogilvy senior VP Margo Gillman wrote HHS/ASPA on December 7, 2010, requesting feedback on concepts from a recent presentation. Gillman wrote, “You mentioned on our last call that you were planning to discuss them with the White House on either Friday or yesterday.”
An additional e-mail sent December 15, 2010, from Chris Beakey at Ogilvy only reveals an even more hands-on Obama administration:
· We saw the pre-existing conditions and guaranteed coverage issues in the lead of the oped by Sect. Sebelius and Eric Holder in yesterday’s Wash Post . . .
· One thing the White House Team and HHS really liked about our treatments overall is that we’re reflecting “everyday health challenges faced by everyday people.”
· You want to spend the bulk of their paid media efforts… on media that reaches African Americans and Hispanics . . .
· You want us to come up with a list of college towns where we can stage/test the guerilla marketing idea in March . . .
· You are still amassing budget for overall project, and may siphon in some money from the Obesity task order, so you want us to have some treatments that weave in the prevention theme.
According to the e-mails, the initial purpose of Ogilvy’s initiative was the promotion of Healthcare.gov — the federal website designed to help health-care users understand the president’s wickedly complex reform law. However, Beakey reports a transformation of the PR campaign from Internet-based activities to a comprehensive Obamacare crusade, complete with guerilla tactics aimed at young voters and minorities.
Particularly alarming are phrases such as, “amassing funds”and “siphon in some money.” From where siphoned? How much amassed?
Sebelius’s unwillingness to cooperate with congressional investigators means taxpayers have zero idea whether ASPA’s work with Ogilvy has continued, whether similar projects are underway, or what the cost to taxpayers has been. The health secretary has received numerous opportunities to clear the air; her silence is damning.
Congressional Republicans should join Senator Portman’s effort to stop taxpayer-funded propaganda and force transparency upon an administration that has practiced anything but. Doing so will free the strapped-for-cash Obama campaign from the temptation to siphon or amass anymore taxpayer money to advertise the president’s unpopular health-care law.
— S. E. Robinson is a freelance writer and native Mainer begrudgingly living in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College.