President Bush said yesterday that federal agencies should stop awarding contracts to outside commentators as a Democratic lawmaker assailed the administration over the latest example and an advocacy group called for an investigation.
Separately, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and nine colleagues released a report showing that the Bush administration spent more than $88 million last year on contracts with public relations firms, an increase of 128 percent over the last year of the Clinton administration. Medicare and Medicaid officials have spent the most on outside publicity firms over the past four years, the report said.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher was touting Bush's "healthy marriage" initiative while working on the program under a $21,500 contract from the Department of Health and Human Services. The news followed an earlier controversy over conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who has apologized for not disclosing a $241,000 Education Department contract to promote the president's No Child Left Behind law.
Asked about the issue at a news conference, Bush said: "Mr. Armstrong Williams admitted he made a mistake. And we didn't know about this in the White House. And there needs to be a nice, independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press." Asked whether the Education Department had also made a mistake, Bush said yes.
The president added: "All our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying, you know, commentators to advance our agenda. Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."
Gallagher, a marriage expert who heads a Washington think tank, apologized to her readers Tuesday for failing to reveal her contract to assist HHS while writing about the marriage initiative in articles and columns, one of which referred to Bush's "genius." She also received $20,000 in Justice Department funding to write a report on marriage for a private group.
In a statement yesterday, Gallagher said: "It was a mistake on my part not to have disclosed any government contract. It will not happen again." But she said The Post article was "completely false" in saying that her HHS contract was "to help promote the president's proposal." The article noted that under the contract, Gallagher wrote brochures for the program, helped ghost-write a magazine article for a top official and conducted a briefing for regional officials. She was also required to "assist" HHS "in ongoing work related to strengthening marriage."
Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.) and four other Democrats introduced legislation yesterday that would bar funding of "covert propaganda" or material that is partisan or intended for "self-aggrandizement" or "puffery." A statement by one co-sponsor, Rep. George Miller (Calif.), cited the Gallagher contract in saying that "what we really need right now is for the administration to come clean about its propaganda campaign. The administration should disclose all publicly funded contracts signed with journalists, commentators and public relations firms to promote administration policies." Miller has asked for a Government Accountability Office probe of such contracts.
The gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, which opposes Bush's proposal for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, asked the HHS inspector general to investigate the Gallagher contract. HRC questioned in a letter whether federal law or congressional rules were violated when Gallagher twice testified before the Senate on the amendment without disclosing her federal contracts. The inspector general has made no decision yet, a spokeswoman said.