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Bill Would Curb Federal ‘Propaganda’

Amid recent allegations that the Bush administration paid journalists to promote their policy initiatives, two prominent Democratic Senators plan to introduce legislation to make it permanently illegal to use taxpayer funds for propaganda.

Sens. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) and Edward Kennedy (Mass.) announced the introduction of their bill Wednesday on the heels of revelations that syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher and conservative commentator Armstrong Williams had been paid to promote proposals pursued by the Bush administration.

Gallagher received $21,500 from the Health and Human Services Department to do research on strategies to strengthen marriage, which was a policy priority for the administration. Williams pocketed $240,000 of the Education Department’s money for endorsing and talking up President Bush’s signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind, on Williams’ syndicated television show.

In a press conference Wednesday, Bush said that his administration should not pay commentators for publicity on his policies.

“I expect my Cabinet secretaries to make sure that that practice doesn’t go forward,” said Bush. “There needs to be a nice, independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press.”

The Lautenberg-Kennedy bill would permanently codify standards developed by the Government Accountability Office — Congress’ independent investigative arm — to determine whether government public relations efforts run afoul of riders included in annual appropriations bills that prohibit the use of taxpayer funds for “publicity or propaganda.”

The bill defines propaganda as any written or taped news release or other publication that does not clearly state that it comes from the government, any payment to journalists for promotion of policies, messages designed to aid a political party or candidate, any message whose purpose is “self-aggrandizement” or “puffery,” and messages that are “so misleading or inaccurate” as to constitute propaganda.

Citizens could sue the government for illegal use of government funds under the bill. Violators would be fined three times the amount of the taxpayer funds that were spent on propaganda, and the citizen plaintiff could be awarded from 25 percent to 30 percent of the fine.

Additionally, the bill would create a point of order in the House and Senate against all spending bills for the offending agency until the misspent money was recovered by docking the pay of the official or department head responsible for the misuse of funds.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is sponsoring a similar bill in the House.

The GAO and the Education Department’s inspector general are already looking into the propriety of Williams’ contract.

In a related action, Kennedy and Lautenberg asked the GAO to look into allegations that the Social Security Administration is improperly hawking the president’s plan to overhaul Social Security.

The Senators claim that SSA officials violated laws against lobbying with taxpayer dollars by approving messages that appear to encourage citizens to contact their Members of Congress about changes to Social Security.

Lautenberg and Kennedy also object to the SSA using recorded messages that declare “changes will need to be made to Social Security” when citizens call Social Security’s toll-free information number.

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