Agencies Using E-Mail to Lobby
Several federal agencies may be close to violating laws that prevent the use of appropriated agency funds for lobbying Congress
Several federal agencies are using taxpayer-financed E-mail and Internet accounts to defend government technology subsidy programs from budget cuts advocated by the Republican Congress.
The most prominent cyber lobbyists are the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Energy Department and, most recently, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. According to observers, the content, tone and method of delivery of the messages is unprecedented. And they could stray close to violating laws that prevent the use of appropriated agency funds for lobbying Congress.
Bill Cummins, an attorney who works in the Office of General Counsel for the Federal Emergency Management Administration, says federal employees are not supposed to "use official time, stationery or whatever" on political issues. "You can do it on your own time. You're a free citizen. But if you represent yourself as stating an official position of the agency that's a different thing. There's something called the anti-lobbying act, which restricts the use of appropriated funds for lobbying Congress," said Cummins.
During the Bush and Reagan presidencies, federal technology agencies issued straightforward, factual press releases detailing the activities of a particular program, such as the Advanced Technology Program. During the inevitable budget fights, political appointees would be made available for comments. But the civil servants who wrote press releases stayed clear of the public-policy battles over their own budget.
But as the infotech savvy Clinton administration battles the first GOP Congress in 40 years -- with a decidedly anti-statist slant -- the lines of propriety are being blurred. "We've got a little ulterior motive," said Michael Newman, a spokesman for NIST, in a taped interview. "We can't go out there and stump. But if we can give you what is our opinion, at least it gets out in print. You guys are our best mouthpiece. These programs are going to be hampered--so that's the feeling behind the aggressiveness in putting out the statements. We're not going to industry and saying here's what we want you guys to do. But we can certainly put the stuff out there and let industry and everybody else know our dissatisfaction," said Newman.
Adam Thierer, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, has seen the federal bulletin boards, which disseminate such messages. "But I guess I'm not surprised. The thing is you have the Al Gore-ites out there who want to use cyberspace to advance an agenda. Here's a case where you've got someone who shouldn't be lobbying at all, and who is using cyberspace very effectively and in an organized fashion for their own self-interest. And it's the government, someone who's not supposed to do that." Added Melissa Sabatine, a spokeswoman for House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Walker (R-Pa.): "You would expect NACFAM (a trade group) to do this, but not the agencies. This is all part of the ATP wars." NIST, a Commerce Department agency whose ATP program is on the GOP recission list, engages in this practice often. An E-mail message sent to the press, on Feb. 9 at 4:22 p.m. EST from Michael Baum, a press aide at the NIST, furnishes a prime example. From an NIST-sponsored Internet address -- firstname.lastname@example.org -- Baum issued a response to the GOP's proposed recissions for ATP. "H.R. 845, a bill to rescind $107 million in FY 1995 funds from the budget of the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program, would have disastrous effects not only on the program in FY 95, but in future years as well,'' reads the E-mail message.
NIST also issued another statement to the press, via E-mail and by fax, which took the GOP to task for proposing budget cuts in an array of industry programs. A message sent on Feb. 24 at 5:28 p.m. says that the "February 23 action by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and State to rescind $46.6 million in funding for programs at the Commerce Department's NIST would have damaging impacts on the full range of U.S. industries," and would be a "substantial setback to invest in technology for economic growth." The statement, unattributed to any government official and without specific reference to potentially damaged industries, further states that the recission was "shortsighted in today's climate where rapid technological change and global competitiveness are challenging many U.S. industries' very survival." The Energy Department also disseminates its rebuttals to GOP recission proposals over the taxpayer financed Internet, as well as over a fax service that disseminates scores of news releases simultaneously. A Feb. 24 press release from the agency was headlined "Cuts Strike at Heart of Critical Programs." Said the document: "We strongly oppose these cuts. They strike at the heart of programs critical to the nation." The release said that a proposed $13.7 million cut in a program for the steel industry, would "damage" efforts to make that industry competitive globally.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy also has joined the electronic lobbying fray. A release dated Feb. 3, and disseminated by Bruce Epstein -- email@example.com -- a NASA detailee working at the OSTP, tells readers how to access press releases and documents supportive of the administration's "priority" of investing in science and technology. "The White House disseminates press notices, reports, briefings, policy, testimony and speeches via electronic mail," said the statement. "Individuals with electronic mail can subscribe and automatically receive periodic White House releases and make a request for previous releases."
So when does such lobbying constitute a violation of federal law, particularly given the relative ease of conducting lobbying electronically? And what legitimate right does an agency have to defend its existence at taxpayer expense? The answers to those questions lie at the heart of amendments to federal employee lobbying laws, which will be finalized in June. Still, at least for now, much of what passes for public relations at many agencies could be considered straightforward lobbying -- and if so, a possible violation of the law.