President Bush on Wednesday ordered his Cabinet secretaries not to hire columnists to promote their agendas after disclosure that a second writer was paid to tout an administration initiative.
The president said he expects his agency heads will "make sure that that practice doesn't go forward."
"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," Mr. Bush said at a news conference.
Mr. Bush's remarks came a day after syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher apologized to readers for not disclosing a $21,500 contract with the Health and Human Services Department to help create materials promoting the agency's $300 million initiative to encourage marriage.
The president also said the White House had been unaware that the Education Department paid commentator and columnist Armstrong Williams $240,000 to plug its policies. That contract came to light two weeks ago.
Mr. Bush said there "needs to be a nice independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press."
And he noted that "we have new leadership going into the Department of Education."
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings started this week, replacing first-term Education Secretary Rod Paige. Paige had ordered an investigation into whether Williams should have disclosed the deal to produce television and radio ads promoting the No Child Left Behind Act.
Williams has apologized, calling it a mistake in judgment to not disclose that he was being paid by the administration but insisting he broke no laws.
Gallagher apologized to readers in her column Tuesday, saying that she was not paid to promote marriage but "to produce particular research and writing products" — articles, brochures, presentations. "My lifelong experience in marriage research, public education and advocacy is the reason HHS hired me," she wrote.
She said it never occurred to her to tell readers about her work for the government. "I should have disclosed a government contract when I later wrote about the Bush marriage initiative. I would have, if I had remembered it. My apologies to my readers."
In 2002, Gallagher contributed to an essay promoting marriage that appeared in Crisis magazine under the byline of Wade Horn, HHS assistant secretary for children and families.
Horn said Wednesday Gallagher was never paid to promote the president's marriage initiative in her own columns.
"We hired her because of her expertise in the area of marriage research in order to draw upon that expertise to help us develop materials related to healthy marriage," he said, adding that Gallagher drafted brochures and helped draft the article published under his name.
"At no time was she paid to go outside of HHS and promote the president's healthy marriage initiative," he said. "The federal government hires experts all of the time. There's nothing insidious about that."
Gallagher got another $20,000 — part of which was approved while President Clinton was still in office — from a private organization called the National Fatherhood Initiative, using money from a Justice Department grant. For that 2001 grant, she wrote a report on the institution of marriage, entitled "Can Government Strengthen Marriage?"
On Wednesday a report released by the House Committee on Government Reform looked into the use of taxpayer dollars to fund public relations campaigns.
The Bush administration spent a record $88 million on government-funded public relations contracts in 2004 — a 128 percent increase over 2000, according to the report prepared for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democrats.
Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey urged the investigative arm of Congress, the General Accountability Office, to expand its investigation of the Education Department's contract with Williams to include Health and Human Services and Gallagher.
Gallagher has testified twice before the Judiciary Committee in support of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage without disclosing her contract with the government, the senators said in a letter to the U.S. Comptroller General David Walker.
"This abuse by HHS is just another in a long list of similar incidents of paid policy advocates supporting Bush administration policies," the senators wrote.