President Bush ordered his Cabinet secretaries Wednesday not to hire columnists to promote administration agendas after disclosure that a second writer had been paid to assist an agency.
But Senate Democrats say that's not going far enough.
Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey say they will introduce a bill next week that would strengthen existing law against using government funds for publicity or propaganda within the United States.
"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.
The developments follow the disclosure that syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher was being paid $21,500 by the Health and Human Services Department to push the White House's $300 million initiative to encourage marriage.
"All our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda," President Bush said at a news conference Wednesday. "Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."
The president said he expects his agency heads will "make sure that that practice doesn't go forward."
Mr. Bush also said the White House had been unaware that columnist and commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 by the Education Department to plug its policies. That contract became known 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."
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings started this week, replacing first-term Education Secretary Rod Paige.
Also Wednesday, the House Committee on Government Reform released a report on the use of taxpayer dollars for public relations campaigns. It found the administration spent a record $88 million on government-funded public relations contracts in 2004 — more than double the amount spent in 2000, according to the report prepared for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democrats.
Several investigations, including one by Congress' investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, and the Education Department, are under way. They are looking into whether any laws were broken — and if so, by whom — when Williams was given the money to produce television and radio ads promoting the No Child Left Behind Act.
Kennedy and Lautenberg urged the GAO to expand its probe to include Gallagher's contract with HHS.
Williams has apologized, calling it a mistake in judgment to not disclose that the administration was paying him, but insisting he broke no laws.
Gallagher apologized to readers in her column Tuesday, saying 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 that 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, saying 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?"