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Your Government Spends Billions Convincing You to Let It Spend More of Your Money

“To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical,” Thomas Jefferson proposed.

Those crazy old powdered-wig guys had some funny ideas, didn’t they? Today the federal government is largely dedicated to compelling men and women to subsidize ideas they disbelieve and abhor. The Founders thought the people should shape their government, but today the government spends billions shaping its people (and importing new ones, when the existing populace proves resistant to “change.”)

For example, a new report from watchdog group OpenTheBooks.com details how the federal government spends $4.34 billion on public relations.

“Taxpayers might be surprised to know that the federal government is the second-largest public relations firm in the world,” OpenTheBooks.com founder and report author Adam Andrzejewski observes. “Our nation’s 3,092 federal public affairs officers have perfected the art of advancing an agency’s interests – often for more dollars and higher salaries – ahead of the public interest.”

The report, entitled The Department of Self-Promotion: How Federal Agency P.R. Spending Advances Their Interests Rather Than the Public Interest, offers plenty of examples, gleaned from government financial reports covering the years 2007 through 2014. If civics classes ever get around to teaching the vitally important lesson that government itself is the biggest, baddest “special interest” in America, Andrzejewski’s work can serve as one of their textbooks.

The federal government has spent over $190 million on surveys and polls since 2007, for example, creating what the report describes as a “vast data mining operation that collects all sorts of minutia information on citizens, society, personal behaviors, group behaviors, and business behaviors.” Much of this work is contracted out at exorbitant rates, with one company billing the IRS $69.88 per hour for an “injured spouse satisfaction survey.” That means taxpayers effectively paid each of the company’s “junior survey statisticians” over $145,000 per year.

The Environmental Protection Agency spent $141 million in salaries, plus $1.5 million in bonuses, on permanent “public affairs officers”… but still spent another $26 million on outside P.R. consultants. The EPA claims its social-media campaigns reach millions of Americans… prompting critics to argue that the agency’s advocacy on its own behalf has violated the Anti-Lobbying Act.

The EPA might be the most glaring example of a government agency that has fused almost completely with its own lobbyists, becoming a special interest unto itself, but it’s not the only such example. As The Department of Self-Promotion points out, the public has the right, and urgent need, to know what federal agencies are doing, and much of Washington’s public-relations expenditure is justified in the name of “transparency”… but the budget, and objectives, of these informational programs has grown so huge that much of what agencies publish is pure propaganda.

“Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent,” said Andrzejewski. “But federal agencies don’t have a right to spend $4.34 billion of taxpayer money on self-promotion campaigns. This report sheds light on an area of government spending that has gone unrestrained for far too long.”

Much of this lavish spending would be difficult to justify to taxpayers… if federal agencies ever felt the need to do so.

The State Department spent $36.5 million on polling the opinions of foreigners. In another notorious incident spotlighted by then-Senator Tom Coburn, who is now the Honorary Chairman of OpenTheBooks.com, the State Department spent $630,000 convincing taxpayers to “like” it on Facebook.

Millions of dollars in performance bonuses won’t sit well with a public worried about flat private-sector wages, a shrunken workforce, and irresponsible government spending. Millions were spent on focus groups. Millions more were spent so the government could monitor news broadcasts and website postings about itself.

The Veterans Administration spent $1.7 million measuring employee satisfaction before, during, and after the greatest scandal in its history.

The IRS blew almost $18 million on customer satisfaction surveys, boasting of a 90 percent positive rating… leading Andrzejewski to wonder, “Would a citizen really tell the IRS any differently?”

The Army spent $23.6 million on public relations for Afghanistan, while a massive military withdrawal was being planned and executed.  Judging by conditions in Afghanistan, that expensive P.R. campaign doesn’t seem to have gone terribly well.

Of course, since these are bloated federal agencies we’re talking about, a great deal of money is hard to account for.  OpentheBooks.com found $1.46 billion in payouts to three contractors for background and national security checks for federal employees, tucked into an account called “Support – Professional: Market Research/Public Opinion.” $106.9 million in “dirty data” was scattered across “completely unrecognizable spending transactions within P.R. fund accounts.”

As always, outside groups profited handsomely from government contracts. Some of the hourly billing presented to the federal government implies salaries of over a million dollars per year, on contracts lasting for up to 20 years.  In addition to the $191 million spent on polling and surveys mentioned above, the government paid over $50 million for website services, $17 million for conference services, $212 million for marketing services, $7 million on news services, and $12 million for direct advertising.

The pace of all this public-relations spending is increasing, as the report notes P.R. contracts were up 47.1 percent during the highest two years of the Obama Administration, versus the last two years of the Bush Administration, with new records being set for the price of individual contracts – and that’s despite budget sequestration, which had the entire Washington bureaucracy howling about financial strangulation.

It’s also troubling to see public relations spending on the rise during an Administration notorious for fighting public information requests, with such vigor that Freedom of Information Act lawsuits are frequently necessary to pry crucial documents loose… in a process that takes so long that every scandal dies of old age, and gets buried by the media in an unmarked grave in the Old News Cemetery, before the most striking revelations occur. There is something absolutely grotesque about the most opaque Administration in history spending billions of tax dollars on opinion-manufacturing, and calling it “transparency.”

Andrzejewski hopes his report will begin the process of holding the federal government responsible for “a line item expenditure that most taxpayers find wasteful.”

“The public purpose of wanton public relations spending must be challenged,” he asserted.

For years, the federal agencies have layered on more and more public relations spending. Our oversight report is one of the only comprehensive audits regarding this issue and uses government provided data to begin questioning the public purpose for some of these expenses. With $4.5 billion in federal public relations spending since 2007, have we reached a point where the people’s consent is being manufactured by our government at taxpayer expense?

That’s a crucial question, especially given the massive public-relations feedback loop created by the Internet.

The government spends big money working up social-media excitement – the EPA’s “I Choose Clean Water” campaign, which claimed to reach over 1.8 million people, used software that has been described as creating a “virtual flash mob.” Social-media buzz drives mainstream media coverage, especially when it leans to the left and favors bigger government. Mainstream media coverage heavily impacts election campaigns, giving us more big-spending politicians. Scientists tell us perpetual-motion machines are impossible, but politicians appear to have come up with a pretty good blueprint for one.

I asked Andrzejewski what can be done to slow down the government’s P.R. machine, as even complaints about legally questionable expenditures seem to have gone nowhere.

“The new elites in America must be the citizen,” he replied. “The people must powerfully organize and demand a commitment to basic law enforcement within the public sector. Our report, on PR spending – of all things – exposes just how deep the crisis is in regard to the lack of federal government accountability spanning multiple administrations.”

He noted that outrageous examples of government waste must be cited to attract public attention and give people something to rally around, citing the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska as an example.

“The only way to hold the federal government accountable is to make the American people aware of the problem and remind them ‘We the People’ are the elites in American society,” Andrzejewski said. “Exposing waste really does work.  It doesn’t just make noise. It produces change. This approach worked in the earmark fight, and it can work within the rest of the budget as well.”

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