Many of you may recall a now infamous boondoggle from 2010, when the Obama administration spent more than $3 million in taxpayer money to air three pro-Obamacare commercials starring Andy Griffith. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), these ads incurred a total of $404,000 in production costs and $2.8 million in national media placement costs. To boot, the ads were deemed misleading by the nonpartisan organization FactCheck.org, as The Washington Examiner points out.
Well folks, HHS is at it again. As Fox News reported in a May 24, 2012 article, the department has inked a $17.6 million contract with the public-relations firm Porter Novelli for the purpose of disseminating information about the Affordable Care Act. According to government records, the account was awarded at the end of this April.
According to reporting by The Hill, the deal is ostensibly intended to help the administration emphasize the importance of preventive measures and to increase public awareness of the specific preventive benefits that the Affordable Care Act has made available to Medicare recipients and others. Nonetheless, it seems possible that this deal will simply devolve into a quintessential election year propaganda-fest.
To make matters worse, the $20 million Porter Novelli contract is just the tip of the iceberg. In an article from May 22, 2012, the Heritage Foundation reported that the Obama administration has long been funneling taxpayer dollars into the promotion of Obamacare.
According to the article, from October 2010 through February 2011, the administration spent more than $1.4 million in taxpayer money on online advertisements promoting the Affordable Care Act. This included expenditures on internet search tracking and ad campaigns.
The Porter Novelli contract is particularly notable, however, both for its high price tag and also for its well-connected beneficiaries. As CNS News reports, Catherine “Kiki” McLean, a senior partner and managing director at Porter Novelli, is a longtime Democratic operative, senior advisor, and campaign surrogate who has worked for the campaigns of Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and President Obama. Porter Novelli’s own website describes McLean as “a true D.C. insider.”
In fact, the recent Obamacare deal is but one of many contracts HHS has awarded the PR firm. According to government records, Porter Novelli has been awarded nearly $49 million in HHS contracts since 2010. PR Week reported in a June 8, 2012 article that, just this March, HHS renewed a $1.3 million contract with the PR firm for the purpose of promoting STD awareness.
Of course, the practice of using government contracts to reward political supporters is by no means a new phenomenon. As a February 4, 2004 Washington Post article reported, during the Bush administration HHS granted a lucrative Medicare contract to National Media Inc., an advertising firm which was then employed by the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign.
The Obama administration is also by no means unique in its propensity for using taxpayer dollars to fund massive PR campaigns aimed at popularizing its agenda. As Fox News reported, the Bush administration spent well upwards of $100 million on a 2003 campaign intended to spread information about the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan. The Bush administration was also harshly criticized for spending $840,000 taxpayer dollars promoting No Child Left Behind, as Fox News pointed out.
In fact, the very legality of appropriating public funds for such purposes was called into question in 2004, when the Bush administration used taxpayer dollars to fund a Medicare ad campaign. But, as a March 11, 2004 New York Times article then reported, the General Accounting Office deemed the campaign legal, stating that it did “not violate the prohibition on the use of appropriated funds for publicity or propaganda, because [HHS] has explicit authority to inform Medicare beneficiaries.”
The problem is, delineating between “publicity or propaganda” and accurate, relevant information is a tricky task. Even objectively truthful facts can easily be slanted or presented in such a way that they not only spread information, but also shift public opinion. Thus, while the practice of using public funds to “inform” citizens may not be explicitly against the law, it rightly irks the taxpayers who end up footing the bill for expensive advertising contracts.
Politicians’ use of public funds to reward their supporters and promote their agendas is clearly a systemic problem that must be addressed. With a record national debt, the last thing taxpayers should be forced to spend their hard-earned cash on is a kickback to Washington cronies in the form of a multimillion dollar PR campaign.
President Obama is certainly not the first President to offer generous contracts to his political supporters; nor is he the first to divert public funds toward influencing the opinions of powerful voting blocs. Nonetheless, taxpayers should be appalled by his blatant misuse of public funds and, more importantly, they ought to advocate structural reforms that will help bring these types of spending practices to an end.