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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Congress Wakes

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 7, 2005; 12:11 PM

There are signs this morning that Congress may be remembering that one of its roles is to conduct oversight of the White House.

And it's not just the relatively powerless Democrats, either.

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "House Appropriations Committee Republicans have quietly asked the administration for an accounting of its '60 Stops in 60 Days' [Social Security] blitz. And yesterday, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, formally asked the Government Accountability Office not only for the cost but also 'whether the Bush Administration has crossed the line from education to propaganda.'"

What led Republicans to start asking questions?

Possibly the Treasury Department's hiring of four full-time employees to run a "war room," dubbed the Social Security Information Center, as first reported by Mike Allen in The Washington Post in March.

Weisman writes: "Even Republicans raised their eyebrows when they heard new employees were brought on for the campaign, said a House Republican staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid embarrassing the president."

And just how much is this whole enterprise costing?

Weisman looks at some of the elements: "In 2000, when jet fuel prices were lower, the GAO estimated that flying Air Force One cost $54,100 per hour, or $60,250 in today's dollars."

"Excluding security and aircraft costs, the White House has estimated that staff costs on presidential trips average between $22,000 and $59,000, the Associated Press has reported."

So that's easily more than $2 million right there.

Here's the text of Waxman's letter to U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker. In it he writes: "No one disputes the right of the President to make his policy recommendations known to Congress and the public. Yet there is a vital line between legitimately informing the public, as the President did in his State of the Union address, and commandeering the vast resources of the federal government to fund a political campaign for Social Security privatization. Informing the public is the President's responsibility; using taxpayer resources to mount a sophisticated propaganda and lobbying campaign is an abuse of the President's high office."

A recent Congressional Research Service report entitled "Public Relations and Propaganda: Restrictions on Executive Agency Activities" states: "Generally speaking, there are two legal restrictions on agency public relations activities and propaganda. 5 U.S.C. 3107 prohibits the use of appropriated funds to hire publicity experts. Appropriations law 'publicity and propaganda' clauses restrict the use of funds for puffery of an agency, purely partisan communications, and covert propaganda."

And what can Congress do about it?

"Congress... does possess tools to compel changes in agency behavior. Congress may threaten to reduce, or reduce, an agency's appropriation or powers in order to encourage an agency to follow congressional interpretation of the law. Alternatively, Congress may pass new legislation that more sharply delineates its definition of legal and illegal activities."

Not the Dog, Too?

The CRS report, I should note, cites "a number of promotional and public outreach actions by executive branch agencies" that "have provoked controversy."

One example, which I'm thinking belongs in the "puffery" rather than "propaganda" category: "The White House has reportedly expended public funds to create and maintain Barney.gov, a child-friendly website that celebrates the President's Scottish Terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley. The site features photographs and videos of the dogs, along with their biographies and 'answers' letters from children."

Yesterday's Radio Blitz

Meanwhile, the campaign goes on.

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times about how, on Treasury Secretary John W. Snow's invitation, "more than 25 radio hosts from around the country - from G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame to Hoppy Kercheval of West Virginia Radio - broadcast interviews on Social Security all day long from the Treasury Department....

"The serial surrogates included Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's top political adviser, and a man whose interviews have been almost as rare as victories last season by the Washington Redskins; Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez; Joshua B. Bolten, the White House budget director; and four of Mr. Snow's lieutenants at the Treasury Department."

Bubble Watch

Another increasingly controversial aspect of Bush's Social Security blitz is the effort put into keeping dissenters out of the audience.

Tillie Fong writes in the Rocky Mountain News: "U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar has asked for a federal and a state investigation into whether a Republican Party staffer should be charged with impersonating a Secret Service agent at a Denver town hall meeting on Social Security held by President Bush last month....

"On March 21, Leslie Weise, 39, Karen Bauer, 38, and Alex Young, 25 - all members of a group called the Denver Progressives - said a man who dressed and acted like a Secret Service agent hustled them out of Bush's Social Security forum at the Wings over the Rockies museum town hall meeting, because of an anti-war bumper sticker on Weise's car. The man also allegedly threatened them with arrest if they misbehaved."

Denver Post columnist Diane Carman writes about the hunt for the man who ejected the three.

"The guy's freakin' radioactive. Nobody will touch him.

"So far, this is all we know: He's about 5-feet-11 or 6 feet tall. On March 21, he wore a navy blue suit, an oval pin and an earpiece. He's stocky - not fat. He's either bald or wears his hair shaved to a barely visible stubble."

But, Carman concludes: "Radioactive Man is going down."

Trust Fund Watch

And Bush's continued insistence that the Social Security trust fund doesn't exist (see yesterday's column) is also inflaming critics to nearly unprecedented levels.

Liberal blogger Atrios, for instance, points to this speech by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) on the House Floor on Tuesday. An excerpt:

"The President said, 'There is no trust fund.' And then he went on to suggest that our Nation might not honor its debt to Social Security. This is what the President said does not exist." (I'm assuming he held up a visual aid at this point.)

"Let me read from this. This is a Social Security Trust Fund bond, considered the best investments in the world, U.S. Treasury Bond. This is the most privileged of Treasury bonds issued to Social Security, redeemable at any time at full face value, unlike any other bond that they issue. These are the most privileged of their bonds. The President says it is nothing but an IOU. Well, here is what it says: 'This bond is incontestable in the hands of the Federal Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund. The bond is supported by the full faith and credit of the United States. And the United States is pledged to the payment of the bond with respect to both principal and interest.'

"The President questions that?"

The Pope and the President

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "President Bush landed in Rome this evening with two of his predecessors - his father and Bill Clinton - and they immediately sped to St. Peter's Basilica to pray at the body of Pope John Paul II. Mr. Bush is the first sitting president to attend the funeral of a pope. Mr. Bush was met inside the basilica by Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York, and for about four minutes the three presidents, Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prayed by the side of the pope's body, said Joseph Zwilling, the archbishop's spokesman."

Oh, and according to this White House photo, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. was there, too.

CBS News's John Roberts shows video of everyone kneeling before the pope's remains. He also reports that at tomorrow's funeral, Bush will be seated not far from the leaders of Iran and Syria.

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and Pope John Paul II spoke often about their desire to spread freedom and a culture of life around the world. Yet their visions for accomplishing these lofty goals sometimes sharply conflicted."

And here's a peek behind the curtain: "Although the president never showed hesitation in public about attending the funeral, he did have reservations, according to Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). 'We actually talked a couple of months ago about whether he [Bush] was going to go to the funeral,' Santorum said in an interview this week. 'He said 'I really want to go, but I'm not too sure I want to set a precedent. Because no president has ever been to a pope's funeral before, so I have to think about it.'"

Jimmy Who?

As we discussed in my Live Online yesterday, tongues continue to wag over former president Jimmy Carter's absence from the official delegation.

Ellen Gamerman writes in the Baltimore Sun: "Neither the White House nor the former president's staff in Georgia can agree on exactly why Carter - who made history with a sun-splashed reception for Pope John Paul II on the South Lawn of the White House in 1979 - won't be attending. The White House says Carter refused its invitation. Carter allies explain his absence as the result of either a miscommunication or a White House snub."

An anonymous Carter aide told Gamerman "that the White House indeed called Carter asking whether he'd like to join the U.S. delegation and that Carter replied that he would. But, according to the aide, the White House soon called back saying the small group did not include former presidents. So Carter backed out, figuring the seat was needed for someone else, the aide said.

"The White House called once more, saying the first President Bush would in fact attend, the aide said. But the aide said Carter declined once more, thinking it was understandable that the president's father would go and assuming the guest list was essentially closed. The aide said that when Carter learned Clinton was going, too, it was too late, and thus the former president became visibly absent from the group."

The American Spectator reports: "According to White House sources, Carter's representatives, apparently from the former president's Carter Center, reached out to the White House over the weekend and offered to lead the U.S. delegation should the President or other senior Bush administration officials not be able to attend.

"'There was no misunderstanding. It wasn't Carter who made the actual call, but the message was pure Carter gumption,' says a White House source...

"'The other thing that people forget is that Carter has treated President Bush very badly. He has openly criticized the President in a manner that President Clinton has not,' says a Bush administration source."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "White House officials sought to stifle speculation that Carter wasn't really welcome on the flight. The former president has publicly criticized Bush on a host of issues, especially his handling of the Iraq war."

"'He was invited. We did reach out to him,' White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters on Air Force One. 'It was his decision to make. We would have been more than happy to have him.'

"Carter sought to end the flap Wednesday, without fully clarifying the chain of events that led to his decision to stay home.

"'There has been no dissension between me and the White House concerning the pope's funeral,' Carter said in a one-sentence statement issued by his office."

Here's the text of McClellan's gaggle yesterday.

Andrea Mitchell discussed the back story yesterday on NBC with Matt Lauer: "The inescapable conclusion, Matt, is that he was snubbed."

Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh asked: "Why in the world should George W. Bush take Jimmy Carter anywhere?"

Myriam Márquez writes in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed: "Bush missed an opportunity to prove he doesn't hold grudges simply because of differences of opinion in public policy. Instead, he showed himself to be petty at a time when the world is grieving the passing of a pope who went so far as to kiss the feet of the man who tried to kill him."

Aboard Air Force One Again

On the way to Rome, the two ex-presidents who did get to make the trip stopped by the press cabin to chat.

Here, from the pool report, is what former President Bush had to say about being back on Air Force One:

Bush: "It feels great. Some of the same people are here - not many, one or two."

Reporter: "Food's probably not as good."

Bush: "Stop whining."

Reporter: "Not the press - we would never whine."

Bush: "No, never."

Then it was Clinton's turn.

Reporter: "How does it feel to be back on Air Force One for the first time since your presidency?

Clinton: "I never thought I'd be on this plane again - I had a good time. They have turkey burgers too, which they didn't have when I was here. If they'd been serving me turkey burgers, I might not have heart surgery."

Both former presidents also reminisced about the pope.

"He's like all of us - he may have a mixed legacy," said Clinton.

Today's Calendar

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Bush on Thursday planned a low-key day: a courtesy call on Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, a meeting with U.S. Roman Catholic cardinals attending the funeral, and a private dinner with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi."

"Bush planned no public remarks or appearances."

Valerie Plame Watch

Carol D. Leonnig of The Washington Post draws some conclusions from the latest news out of the investigation into whether Bush administration officials illegally revealed the identity of a covert CIA operative.

"The information in a March 22 court filing by special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald suggests that syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, who first published the name of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame, has already spoken to investigators about his sources for that report, according to legal experts. Novak, whose July 2003 column sparked the investigation, and his attorney have refused to comment on whether he was questioned.

"Legal experts and sources close to the case also speculated yesterday that Fitzgerald is not likely to seek an indictment for the crime he originally set out to investigate: whether a government official knowingly exposed a covert officer. The sources, who asked not to be named because the matter is the subject of a grand jury investigation, said Fitzgerald may instead seek to charge a government official with committing perjury by giving conflicting information to prosecutors."

Poll Watch

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Almost three months into President Bush's second term, a raft of economic and social issues -- Social Security, immigration, gay marriage and the recent national debate over Terri Schiavo -- is splintering the Republican base.

"After winning re-election on the strength of support from nine in 10 Republican voters, the president is seeing significant chunks of that base balk at major initiatives, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows."

According to the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, significant numbers of Republicans call it "a bad idea" to let workers invest payroll taxes in the stock markets and say Democrats in Congress should prevent Mr. Bush and party leaders from "going too far in pushing their agenda." A majority of Republicans say Congress shouldn't pass legislation affecting families in cases such as Terri Schiavo's and oppose Bush's proposal to grant legal status to some illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

Here are some of the poll results -- unfortunately, without those fascinating party-affiliation crosstabs.

Tim Russert was on NBC News last night, discussing Bush's approval-rating drop to 48 percent. "The White House says, not bad for a president in his fifth year. The Democrats say nonsense, this is hardly a president with a mandate."

But as Editor and Publisher reported the other day, it is indeed bad for a president in his fifth year.

Basketball Watching

Dick Patrick writes in USA Today that Bush called Baylor University coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson from Air Force One to congratulate her team for winning the NCAA Division I women's basketball title on Tuesday.

The Associated Pressreports that McCellan said the president watched the game Tuesday night. "Bush, whose ranch near Crawford is about 30 miles from Baylor's Waco campus, also looks forward to having the champion Lady Bears visit the White House, McClellan said."

Where's the Loyalty?

Robert Novak wrote in his syndicated column last week that several congressional Republicans have told him that the Bush administration is the worst administration at congressional relations they've ever seen.

Jim Lakely writes today in the Washington Times that no one in the White House is jumping to the defense of Bush's congressional liaison, Candida Wolff.

"Asked about Mr. Novak's column by reporters flying on Air Force One yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan gave a typically general response, insisting that relations between Congress and the White House are strong. He did not, however, give a specific defense of Wolff in the face of such specific criticism. I contacted another White House spokesman later in the day and pointedly asked for a defense of Candi Wolff's performance. None was given. I was told to refer back to Mr. McClellan's statement earlier in the day.

"The Bush White House demands complete loyalty, and with very few exceptions, it is given by those honored to work there. But it is apparently too much to ask the spokespeople for the president to give even a tame sentence in defense of a woman who was called all but incompetent by senior senators in a nationally syndicated column. A simple, 'Candi is doing a great job and we have full confidence in her,' would have sufficed. Instead, she was left hanging out there."

Not So Funny

Mark Leibovich writes in The Washington Post from the muted 61st Radio & Television Correspondents Association dinner last night.

"[W]ith Bush in Rome for Pope John Paul II's funeral, the White House comedy chores fell last night to that iconic Washington funnyman, Dick Cheney.

"'I'm not into funny,' the vice president said tersely -- which, of course, is funny in its self-evidence and thus brought down the house."

All in all, a far cry from last year, "when President Bush narrated a slide show of himself looking under the Oval Office furniture and saying, 'Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere . . . nope, no weapons over there . . . maybe under here?'"


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