Politics & Policy

D.C. Payola

The real story.

The Washington Post thinks it caught another conservative with her hand in the cookie jar. On Wednesday, Howard Kurtz reported that marriage expert and opinion columnist Maggie Gallagher received $21,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services to brief government officials and draft documents that could be used to promote the Bush administration’s marriage initiative. At the same time, Gallagher–president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy and co-author of The Case for Marriage–penned some columns supporting the administration’s plan, and also defended President Bush’s call for a Federal Marriage Amendment. Coming after revelations that pundit Armstrong Williams received substantial sums to promote the administration’s education plans, the Gallagher disclosure is now the latest scandal in Washington, D.C. Yet as is so often the case, the media is missing the real story.

According to Kurtz, Gallagher should have disclosed her HHS contract when she wrote about the Bush administration’s marriage policies in her syndicated column and elsewhere. Gallagher acknowledged that complete disclosure is the best policy for any writer (and perhaps I should disclose that I’ve known Maggie for some 15 years, though we rarely talk), but also noted that her arrangement was nothing new. As she wrote in her defense, “It is not uncommon for researchers, scholars, or experts to get paid by the government to do work relating to their field of expertise.” To the contrary, in Washington it’s just business-as-usual.

Kurtz defended his story stating “none of this would be a media controversy had Gallagher disclosed the contract in her writing trumpeting the Bush marriage plan.” Perhaps–Gallagher is not just an expert who writes on policy subjects, but a syndicated columnist as well. Yet it still seems there is a double standard at work. Where are the stories on individuals and organizations who promote the agendas of government agencies from which they also receive substantial sums? As Gallagher wrote, “Until today, researchers and scholars have not generally been expected to disclose a government-funded research project in the past, when they later wrote about their field of expertise in the popular press or in scholarly journals.” Indeed, this is true even when such articles appear in Kurtz’s own Washington Post.

In October 2003, for example, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) chairman William K. Reilly wrote an op-ed, “The EPA’s Cost Underruns,” celebrating the cost-effectiveness of federal environmental regulation. Reilly claimed Environmental Protection Agency programs have produced a “solid return on our investments and declared environmental protection “one of the two foremost achievements of American public policy in the post-World War II period.” Yet while Reilly’s byline acknowledged he was EPA administrator from 1989 to 1993, there was no mention that WWF is a substantial recipient of EPA funds–well over $1.5 million in the past ten years. According to WWF’s Form 990s filed with the IRS, the group received over $15 million in government funds in both 2002 and 2003.

Three months earlier, another environmental advocate, Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), was on the Post editorial page attacking the Bush administration for constraining the EPA’s regulatory efforts. Like WWF, NWF receives substantial federal funding. In 2004 the EPA awarded NWF eight separate grants, totaling over $100,000, according to the agency’s publicly accessible grants information database. A recent Senate report disclosed that NWF typically receives over a quarter million in taxpayer funds each year. Again the byline noted the author’s former employment at the EPA, but failed to mention his new employer received substantial government funds.

These are hardly isolated examples. To the contrary, most major environmental organizations are on the federal dole. Environmental Defense received a $240,000 EPA grant last September and has received over $4.5 million from the EPA since 1993. Likewise the World Resources Institute has been awarded over $1 million from the EPA in the last five years. The Natural Resources Defense Council is one of the loudest advocates for increasing the EPA’s regulatory authority–and one of Bush administration’s most persistent critics. Yet NRDC has received over $6.5 million since 1993. Just last month the EPA awarded NRDC another $400,000 grant. Yet when these organizations appear in the Washington Post, whether in bylined pieces or reported articles, their federal support is scarcely, if ever, disclosed.

The fact is that many of the policy experts and advocates constantly clamoring for more federal spending and regulation are direct beneficiaries of the government programs that they seek to create. This goes unreported upon in the Post and other publications because it is business as usual in Washington, D.C. Maggie Gallagher’s work for HHS would likewise have been a non-story were it not for the well-deserved outrage over Armstrong Williams’ decision to accept thousands from the Bush administration to promote “No Child Left Behind” in his work as a public commentator.

Unlike Williams, however, Gallagher was not asked to promote the Bush administration’s agenda in her columns or otherwise to spread the word through her punditry and public writings. Rather, she was hired as an expert to do the work of an expert–behind the scenes–drafting documents and preparing presentations for government officials. If her failure to disclose this contract is news, then so is the failure of advocacy groups and other experts to disclose their financial ties with federal agencies when they pen opinion pieces or otherwise hawk their views in the press.

The Gallagher kerfuffle conceals one of the Beltway’s tidy little secrets: Hundreds, if not thousands, of policy experts and advocates receive federal grants and contracts. Federal funding of experts, advocacy groups, and other nonprofits is so widespread that it scarcely ever warrants attention. The real scandal is not that a federal agency paid Maggie Gallagher for her expertise, but that federal agencies dole out millions in taxpayer dollars each and every year to activist organizations that turn around and call for Congress to grant these agencies even greater power. This is the real “political payola” in Washington, and it is about time it received some attention.

NRO contributing editor Jonathan H. Adler is an associate professor and associate director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

Jonathan H. Adler — Mr. Adler is an NRO contributing editor and the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. His latest book is Marijuana Federalism: Uncle Sam and Mary Jane.

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