Bureaucrats in Washington think they have a good use for taxpayer funds. They use the money to promote their services.
After all, the government gives away free money. How can people find out about everything that bureaucrats do to make people’s lives better? The answer is clear: advertising.
Advertising costs money. But money is no object when taxpayers provide it.
Bureaucracies are not known for providing rigorous accounting. So, the government does not know how much the bureaucracies spend on much of anything, let alone advertising. But the Congressional Research Service estimates it at about a billion dollars a year.
“It is unclear how much the executive branch, let alone the federal government as a whole, spends on communications each year,” the CRS report found.
Congress wants power. Bureaucracies want power. Each side wants to spin its way into the hearts, minds, and wallets of the People. The report makes this clear.
Additionally, agencies have incentives to promote themselves to the public. The author of a 1939 study of government communications activities noted, “It has long been the habit of officials to place the best possible light upon their accomplishments.” Agencies frequently seek operational autonomy, that is, they try to distance and insulate themselves from legislative direction. Onemeans for an agency to do this is to develop positive relationships with the public or interest groups through public communications, thereby creating stakeholders who may pressure Congress.
Congress does what it can to restrict this self-promotion. It has done so since at least 1919. It has not succeeded, but it keeps trying.
Collectively, then, the statutory restrictions on publicity experts, publicity and propaganda, and lobbying with appropriated funds, are tools for congressional control. When enforced, these statutes can serve to counteract agencies’ incentives to promote themselves or political causes with public revenue, and to remind agencies that the misuse of agency resources or funds invites a congressional response.
But are they enforced? Not often. There is too much bureaucracy for Congress to keep up with. Congress is too busy creating new bureaucracies for the Executive branch to supervise, as if the Executive had much power over Civil Service-protected bureaucrats, which it doesn’t.
The billion dollars that the CRS has tracked down was paid to ad agencies. This does not include internal communications, such as email and Facebook. The agencies have at least 1,000 federal domains. (That estimate seems too low.)
Over half of the money was spent by the Defense Department to recruit people to fight wars that Congress has not officially declared.
The report identifies seven areas where the agencies are gaining independence from Congress by use of electronic media. There is no possibility that Congress can control any of this. It is spreading too fast.
The dream of Congressional authority goes back to The Federalist Papers (1788). The Framers of the Constitution believed this: “He who pays the piper calls tune.” In the free market, this is true. It is not true in politics. The best that the person writing the checks can reasonably expect is the musical competence of the orchestra. Congress provides salaries to hire them, which the Executive branch does. The Executive hands out musical instruments and sheet music to Civil Service-protected bureaucrats to play. But it cannot compel anyone to play the sheet music. It’s more like jazz. The musicians improvise. These people will keep playing their own tunes until Washington’s checks bounce.