Tax­pay­ers pay $500M per year for gov­ern­ment PR staffers

Obama added hun­dreds to pay­roll

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DINAN

Pres­i­dent Obama has swelled the ranks of gov­ern­ment PR, adding hun­dreds of new pub­lic re­la­tions spe­cial­ists to the fed­eral pay­roll dur­ing his time in of­fice, cost­ing tax­pay­ers a half-bil­lion dol­lars a year, the gov­ern­ment’s chief watch­dog said.

That doesn’t in­clude the more than $100 mil­lion the ad­min­is­tra­tion spends an­nu­ally for help from pri­vate sec­tor spin­meis­ters, nor does it ac­count for the $800 mil­lion spent on con­tracts for ad­ver­tis­ing in 2015, ac­cord­ing to the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice.

“Spend­ing $1.5 bil­lion on gov­ern­ment PR ac­tiv­i­ties is a huge waste of money. That sort of spend­ing should be dras­ti­cally scaled back,” said Chris Ed­wards, a fed­eral bud­get scholar at the Cato In­sti­tute.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion added some 667 PR staffers be­tween 2008, the last full year un­der his pre­de­ces­sor, and 2011, when pub­lic re­la­tions staffing across fed­eral agen­cies peaked at 5,238 peo­ple. That’s a jump of 15 per­cent dur­ing those years.

The num­ber has since slipped, but there were still nearly 5,100 PR staffers in the ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2014, the fi­nal year for which the GAO had fig­ures.

The me­dian salary for PR em­ploy­ees was $90,000 in 2014 — up from $77,000 in 2006, the au­di­tors said.

The Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get, which is the White House’s con­trol cen­ter for gov­ern­ment de­ci­sions, didn’t re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s PR surge.

But Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wy­oming Repub­li­can and chair­man of the Se­nate Com­mit­tee on the Bud­get, said the study gives penny-pinch­ers a sense for where to look.

“With in­creas­ing pres­sures on lim­ited fed­eral re­sources, it is cru­cial to know how much is spent across the fed­eral gov­ern­ment on pub­lic re­la­tions ac­tiv­i­ties and which fed­eral agen­cies are spend­ing the most,” said Mr. Enzi, who re­quested the re­port.

The Pen­tagon led the way in PR staffing, with more than 2,100 em­ploy­ees as­signed to the mas­sive bu­reau­cracy as of 2014.

The other big grow­ers were the In­te­rior, Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, Home­land Se­cu­rity and Vet­er­ans Af­fairs de­part­ments. The VA saw its pub­lic re­la­tions staffing nearly dou­ble, from 144 peo­ple in 2006 to 286 as of 2014.

VA press of­fi­cials make an av­er­age of $87,000 a year, ac­cord­ing to the GAO re­port. That depart­ment also did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

The VA has been reel­ing in re­cent years from an ex­pand­ing work­load. This week the depart­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral con­firmed that vet­er­ans are still wait­ing too long for care — in­clud­ing one vet­eran in Phoenix who could have been saved had the VA not can­celed his ap­point­ment.

Not ev­ery depart­ment has kept up with the surge in PR. The So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the Trans­porta­tion and La­bor de­part­ments and the Na­tional Sci­ence Foun­da­tion are each at their low­est pub­lic re­la­tions staffing in a decade.

The Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion was the most gen­er­ous, pay­ing an av­er­age of $127,357 to its pub­lic re­la­tions em­ploy­ees. HUD and the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment also av­er­aged more than $120,000.

The De­fense Depart­ment got the best deal out of its PR em­ploy­ees, av­er­ag­ing just $83,204.

GAO in­ves­ti­ga­tors said in their re­port that agen­cies “may have le­git­i­mate in­ter­ests in com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the pub­lic re­gard­ing their func­tions, poli­cies and ac­tiv­i­ties.” The re­port said the Na­tional Zoo’s we­b­cams, the Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion’s warn­ings about the Zika virus and the IRS’ ad­ver­tis­ing of tax cred­its avail­able to tax­pay­ers are all ex­am­ples of PR ac­tiv­i­ties.

But Mr. Ed­wards, the Cato bud­get scholar, said the gov­ern­ment is also pay­ing for “one-sided pro­pa­ganda,” in­clud­ing tout­ing of fed­eral pro­grams that are fail­ing.

“What’s needed from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is not one-sided pro­pa­ganda, but a more hon­est as­sess­ment of the costs and ben­e­fits of each pro­gram,” he said. “Look on the web­site of nearly any fed­eral agency, and you will find glow­ing dis­cus­sions about how pro­grams are help­ing peo­ple and do­ing won­der­ful things. But there is rarely any men­tion of the tax­payer costs and eco­nomic dam­age done by these pro­grams.”

When it comes to ad­ver­tis­ing and out­side PR spend­ing, the Pen­tagon led the way, av­er­ag­ing $626 mil­lion in con­tracts per year. HHS is se­cond, av­er­ag­ing $117 mil­lion — though at one point it spent $236 mil­lion. HHS has been try­ing to con­vince Amer­i­cans to sign up for Oba­macare ahead of an­nual en­roll­ment dead­lines.

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