The “Rosie the Riveter” wartime campaign from the federal government during World War II

News that the Department of Health and Human Services is paying a prominent public relations firm to improve its messaging to reporters throws light on a murky and little-scrutinized area of the federal budget: Advertising.

Agencies in the executive branch spent about $4.4 billion on contracts for “advertising services” from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2013, $892.5 million of that in the last year, according to a study last year by the Congressional Research Service.

[Federal agency hires outside firm to ask reporters how to help with messaging ]

That’s certainly a lot of money. But it could cover everything from public service announcements that encourage people to avoid setting forest fires to the kind of image advertising undertaken by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of HHS. And that’s why this kind of federal spending falls into a bureaucratic black hole, the study found. Agencies don’t really have to be transparent about what they’re doing and why.

“Absent an agreed-upon definition of  “advertising” or a government-wide reporting system for advertising expenses, agencies have had great discretion to budget their in-house advertising-related costs,” research service analyst Kevin R. Kosar wrote in the study, first reported by The Fiscal Times.

“The challenges of defining advertising and, therefore, advertising expenses are significant.”

The biggest spenders in fiscal 2013 were the Defense Department ($419 million); HHS ($197.4 million); the Education Department ($128.8 million); the Department of Veterans Affairs ($61.8 million) and the Transportation Department ($43 million).

But the study said there is no “government-wide definition of what constitutes advertising” and no central place where agencies are required to report advertising-related expenditures. As a result, agencies can pretty much spend what they want.

In mid-September, public relations firm Edelman sent an e-mail to a few reporters on behalf of an unnamed federal agency asking for insights on helping “refine their agency messaging.”

It asked the reporters to “keep the conversation confidential” and not to “report on anything discussed in the interview.” For participating, Edelman offered to “donate $175 to a charity on your behalf.”

A spokesman for the substance abuse and mental health agency said the Edelman contract was designed to help the agency better understand how to better serve its customers.

Technically, there are some restrictions on advertising. For example, the Department of Defense can’t use public funds to pay for advertising by a defense contractor.  The government can’t advertise certain agricultural products. Treasury appropriations laws have contained prohibitions on the use of funds for the purpose of “publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by the Congress,” the report said. Also, agencies can’t use government money to pay for advertising to lobby Congress.

It’s unclear how vigorously these limits on government advertising are being enforced, Kosar found.

But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) is demanding that the Office of Management and Budget provide the cost of the HHS agency contract with Edelman and how much the Obama administration has spent this year on outside advertising services.

Enzi said in a letter to OMB Director Shaun Donovan that he is concerned about this kind of spending in light of a national debt in excess of $18 trillion.

“Unnecessary media relations spending is a cost that the nation simply cannot afford,” Enzi wrote. He added that agency spending on public relations activities is “largely a black box,” and he said the research service could not establish exactly how much taxpayers are spending on advertising.

Enzi also said this spending goes on despite several laws that discouraging government spending on “publicity or propaganda purposes,” or to influence how Congress votes.