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Rob Portman Seeks Answers on Health and Human Services Spending

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) today sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking for more information on a $20 million public relations contract to tout the president’s health care law.

Portman, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, launched a broader inquiry earlier this year with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) asking 11 federal agencies to provide an accounting all “contracts for the acquisition of public relations, publicity, advertising, communications, or similar services” dating back to the fall of 2008, before President Barack Obama took office.

“I write to respectfully request further information about this contract, including the request for proposal, a detailed statement of the expected work product, the planned content of taxpayer-funded advertisements, the target audiences, and the timetable for advertisements this year,” Portman wrote in today’s letter, which was not done with McCaskill, the subcommittee’s top Democrat.

In the letter, Portman asked Sebelius to show that the agency is in compliance with a provision in the fiscal 2012 appropriations bill that restricts the spending of federal dollars for initiatives deemed as “propaganda.”

“I am seeking HHS’s legal opinion concerning whether this public relations contract complies with the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012, which bars certain public relations spending. That law states in relevant part: ‘No part of any appropriation contained in this or any other Act shall be used … for publicity or propaganda purposes.’ Please provide an explanation of the extent to which this new multimedia campaign does or does not constitute ‘publicity or propaganda,’” the letter continues.

Portman’s letter and his previous efforts with McCaskill are not without precedent.

In March 2005, Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) sent a letter to President George W. Bush criticizing the use of taxpayer funds for agencies to produce and publicize what they claimed were misleading video releases. That same year, the two Democrats introduced a bill to permanently bar taxpayer funds for use as “propaganda.” Additionally, they asked the Bush administration to return the almost $240,000 the Department of Education paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to tout the No Child Left Behind Act.

In his most recent letter, Portman indicated that he and McCaskill have not received a response to their original inquiry.

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