Agency’s PR spending sparks Senate Budget chair’s investigation

The chair of the Senate Budget Committee wants to make sure federal agencies aren’t wasting their budgets on good publicity.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has asked Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan to better police agency spending on public relations.

Enzi’s inquiry comes after reports that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hired a private PR firm to solicit reporters on how it could “refine their agency messaging.” SAMHSA operates within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., leaves a closed-door GOP caucus luncheon at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. The Senate is working on stalled unemployment legislation as Republicans and Democrats seek a compromise to restore benefits to 1.3 million long-term jobless workers who lost them abruptly late last year.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. MIke Enzi (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee

As part of his investigation, Enzi has asked Donovan for a breakdown of agency wide spending on advertising and publicity for fiscal 2015.

“Agency spending on advertising, public relations and media relations is largely a black box,” Enzi wrote in his letter, citing a recent report on federal advertising by the Congressional Research Service. “It’s hard to tell how much is spent and where the money is going, according to CRS, which reports that agencies tend to have great discretion over how such funds are spent.”

Federal law prohibits the use of appropriated federal funds for publicity or propaganda purposes, but as the CRS report finds, no single agency tracks advertising spending for all federal agencies, and few governmentwide restrictions exist that define legal advertising from prohibited propaganda.

Federal agencies can — and do — hire outside PR firms for outreach efforts while keeping in line with federal advertising laws. SAMHSA, for example, requested $13 million this year for “public awareness and support” and asked for $16 million for fiscal 2016.

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“It is unclear how vigorously the limits on government advertising are being enforced,” the report said. “It does not appear that the Department of Justice has indicted anyone for lobbying with appropriated funds.”

Since 1949, the federal government has prohibited agencies from using funds on “publicity and propaganda,” according to GAO, which issues rulings on federal appropriations law.

Congress holds the most responsibility for overseeing agency spending on advertising. GAO reviews agency advertising only at Congress’ request, and can only issue non-binding recommendations.

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