Bush: Pundit payments will stop
Democrats push bill to end practice, question rise in PR funds
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After the revelation that another columnist who supported his administration's policies received government money, President Bush said Wednesday that he disapproved of the practice and wanted it to stop.
"I expect my Cabinet secretaries to make sure that that practice doesn't go forward. There needs to be independence," Bush said at a press conference.
"All our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying ... commentators to advance our agenda.
"Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."
Meanwhile, several Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday designed to stop what they termed taxpayer-funded "covert propaganda campaigns" violating a provision included in annual appropriation acts since 1951.
Under the new bill, dubbed the Federal Propaganda Prohibition Act of 2005, the prohibition on propaganda would become a permanent part of federal law.
Federal agencies would also have to notify Congress about public relations, advertising and polling contracts, and the funding sources of all federally funded public relations materials would have to be disclosed.
Supporters of the effort include the two top Democrats in the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
The group also released a investigative report prepared by Democratic committee staff that found the Bush administration spent more than $88 million on contracts with public relations agencies in 2004, a 128 percent increase from 2000.
"While not all public relations spending is illegal or inappropriate, this rapid rise in public relations contracts at a time of growing budget deficits raises questions about the priorities of the administration," the report said.
The report found that more than 40 percent of public relations contracts issued in 2004 -- worth $37 million -- were awarded "without full and open competition," compared with less than 20 percent of such contracts during the last year of the Clinton administration.
The report found that over the past four years a single agency, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, spent more than $94 million on contracts with public relations agencies.
White House press secretary Trent Duffy dismissed the report as a "partisan exercise."
"The president spoke directly at his press conference about inappropriate expenditures for journalists," Duffy said. "His words speak for themselves on that."
Gallagher deal revealed
On Wednesday, Washington Post media critic and CNN host Howard Kurtz reported that in 2002 syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher "repeatedly defended President Bush's push for a $300 million initiative encouraging marriage as a way of strengthening families," without mentioning she "had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote the president's proposal."
Gallagher said in a statement published Wednesday that she was hired by HHS because of her "lifelong experience in marriage research, public education and advocacy."
She was paid to prepare presentation on the benefits of marriage for HHS managers, to draft an essay on the topic for HHS Assistant Secretary Wade Horn and to prepare brochures on the topic, Gallagher wrote.
"I was not paid to promote marriage. I was paid to produce particular research and writing products ... which I produced," she wrote.
Gallagher, a frequent television guest and a former editor at the conservative National Review, is the author of three books on marriage and president of the new nonprofit organization, Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, based in Washington.
In retrospect, Gallagher said, she should have disclosed the contract to her readers when she later wrote in support of the Bush marriage initiative in her column.
"But the real truth is that it never occurred to me," she wrote. "I would have [disclosed the contract], if I had remembered it. My apologies to my readers," Gallagher said.
Earlier this month, conservative commentator Armstrong Williams acknowledged that his company received $240,000 from a public relations agency hired by the Department of Education to promote Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform plan.
Both Williams and outgoing Education Secretary Rod Paige said the money was paid to Williams' company to produce and air ads supporting the measure, which they insisted was legal. But Paige asked the department's inspector general to investigate.
Bush said Wednesday the Education Department made a mistake by paying Williams and insisted the White House did not know about it.
In a separate incident also cited by the Democratic lawmakers Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office found last May that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and HHS hired a public relations firm to produce and distribute promotional materials designed to look like video news reports.