WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration spent more than $1.6 billion over a 30-month period on public relations and advertising contracts to promote its policies and programs, according to a report released yesterday by the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress.
The contracts included $2.5 million to present the Army's strategy in the global war on terrorism; $86 million to explain the new Medicare prescription drug benefit in a bilingual ad campaign; and $29,900 to warn the public of the ''consequences and potential dangers" of buying prescription drugs from foreign sources. The bulk of the spending -- slightly more than $1 billion -- went toward armed forces recruitment campaigns.
The Democrats who requested the study did not take issue with such spending, given the need to attract more military recruits. But they said White House spending on campaigns like the promotion of the war on terrorism and Bush's prescription drug programs warrant a closer look.
''The extent of the Bush administration's propaganda effort is unprecedented and disturbing," said Representative George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. ''I would hope that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle would agree that changes need to be made to rein in the president's propaganda machine."
The report by the Government Accountability Office didn't say whether the White House had broken any laws, and noted that all of the advertising and public relations campaigns were paid for from the agencies' budgets. Federal appropriations laws generally prohibit any spending on publicity or propaganda, though the language is vague and enforcement is lax.
The use of paid media has been a recurring source of tension between the White House and Democrats in Congress. Those tensions increased when the administration acknowledged last year that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind law, and that in 2002 syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher was paid $21,500 to help push a Bush administration proposal to encourage marriage.
Last February, after the GAO condemned what the White House called ''video news releases" -- prepackaged tapes that promote government policies but look and sound like broadcast news -- Congress ordered such stories to include ''clear notification" that an executive-branch government agency paid for and produced the tapes. In July, the White House adopted that as a formal policy.
Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said the use of advertising and public relations firms is critical to informing the public about government services and the administration has clear rules in place. ''Any agency's use of public relations support for their communications effort is legal, and it helps disseminate important information to the public," Perino said.
The GAO said it can't compare the $1.6 billion the Bush White House has spent with spending by previous administrations because the issue hasn't been studied before. The study examined promotional spending in seven Cabinet-level departments -- Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Interior, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs -- between early fiscal 2003 and the middle of fiscal 2005.
According to the report, the administration signed 343 contracts with public relations firms, advertising agencies, media agencies, and individuals between 2003 and 2005. The spending includes $1.4 billion paid to advertising firms and $197 million to public relations firms.
The money paid for a wide range of programs, including public education campaigns on endangered species, creation of interactive exhibits at national parks, and promotion of newly redesigned US currency -- a campaign that cost $54.4 million.
Some smaller contracts drew attention. The $2.5 million the Army spent on ''strategic perspective in the global war on terrorism" included developing ways to respond to critics of the war on terror. The Army also spent at least $1.1 million for ''news story development in support of soldiers" -- ways to get the media to report on positive stories. Democrats said the entry shows the White House used taxpayer dollars to help ''spin" the public in favor of the Iraq war and other initiatives.
''No amount of money will successfully sell the Bush Administration's failed policies," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said in a statement yesterday.
The report provides details of the administration's effort to sell the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which Bush launched in January. According to the study, the administration spent $13.4 million for Spanish-language campaigns about the new program, and $72.9 million for ads in English.