The Government Accountability Office is launching an investigation to shed a light on a sector of federal agency spending long kept in the shadows: advertising.
GAO’s announcement came after some powerful lawmakers have pressed agencies for more disclosure into their spending on public relations and advertising. A 2014 Congressional Research Service report found agencies spent $893 million on advertising contracts in fiscal 2013, and nearly $4.7 billion between fiscal years 2009 and 2013. GAO will examine agency-by-agency appropriations spent on in-house advertising, in addition to contracts, as well as the “primary purposes and reported benefits” from those expenditures.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, initiated GAO’s review, saying in a letter to the auditing agency the “total amount of federal resources dedicated to public relations activity is largely unknown.” Enzi had asked the Office of Management and Budget to report the data to his committee, but OMB said it was unable to process the request.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has joined Enzi in calling federal agency spending on advertising a “black box,” noting in particular the Health and Human Service Department’s promotion of Affordable Care Act enrollment.
“In this era of fiscal constraint, it is imperative that agencies make smart budgetary decisions and use taxpayer funds wisely,” Hatch wrote in a 2015 letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “Increased transparency on government spending on advertising will improve accountability and help ensure that the taxes from hardworking Americans are not squandered and wasted on ineffective or misguided government programs.”
Enzi and Hatch first began pressing the issue after The Washington Post reported HHS’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hired a PR firm to reach out to journalists to determine ways to “refine their agency messaging.” A SAMHSA spokesman said at the time the agency hired the firm to “better meet the interests and needs of the behavioral health care community.”
The 2014 CRS report found it difficult to determine details on federal agencies’ advertising spending. There is no governmentwide reporting standard, CRS said, nor is there a common definition of what constitutes advertising. Additionally, agencies have “great discretion” to budget their in-house PR. Agencies are prohibited from spending money on “publicity or propaganda” not specifically authorized by Congress, but CRS found the lack of a firm definition of advertising has led to “few governmentwide restrictions” on the practice.
GAO, which the authority to issue advisory opinions on the legality of agency spending, has issued opinions that found agencies guilty of misusing funds on advertising. CRS noted, however, those opinions “do not have the force of law.”
“It is unclear how vigorously the limits on government advertising are being enforced,” CRS said.