By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
When USA Today first reported nearly five years ago that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams had been paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars to promote the No Child Left Behind law in his columns and in his media appearances, senior Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives wrote to President George W. Bush expressing their outrage. In one of those letters, then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Reps. Henry Waxman, George Miller, David Obey, and Elijah Cummings denounced the payments made to Williams under a government contract--along with two other public relations initiatives undertaken by the Bush administration--as "illegal covert propaganda" intended to influence the American electorate.
"It would be abhorrent to our system of government," they told Bush, "if these incidents were part of a deliberate pattern of behavior by your Administration to deceive the public and the media in an effort to further your policy objectives."
Their outrage was understandable but, as at least one recent revelation has made clear, it had a limited shelf life.
Earlier this month, in a story that first appeared in the blogosphere, it was revealed that Jonathan Gruber, an economist and professor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had failed to disclose he was under contract with the U.S. Department of Health of Human Services as a healthcare reform consultant at the same time he was making approving noises in the media about the Democrats' healthcare bill.
Gruber's contract, which reportedly runs until February 2010, called for him to provide "technical assistance" to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And he was rewarded handsomely for his efforts, being paid nearly $300,000. At the same time, however, as Fox News reported on January 8, Gruber was also busy "fending off healthcare reform critics in the media," most notably as one of few analysts willing to rebut an October 2009 insurance industry report produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers that concluded health insurance premiums would shoot up if a healthcare bill passes. "And he has recently written columns defending specific provisions in the House and Senate bills, particularly the 'Cadillac tax' on high-cost insurance plans," the network said.
If there is a difference between what Williams did and what Gruber may still be doing, it is a mystery to everyone but, apparently, Pelosi, Waxman, and the others who signed the letter to Bush and who have been curiously silent about this latest example of "illegal covert propaganda."
Among those who see no difference are Grover Norquist, the ubiquitous activist who heads the pro-taxpayer group Americans for Tax Reform, and Sandra Fabry, the executive director of ATR's Center for Fiscal Accountability and a leader in the transparency in government movement.
In a January 11 letter to Gruber, Norquist and Fabry insisted he give the money back, saying, "Your engagement with the government to publicly tout a massive spending program is akin to public lobbying campaigns for which consulting firms are being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars on behalf of their (private-sector) clients. The fact that in your case the client was the Administration paying you hundreds of thousands of dollars makes your actions highly unethical.
"More than anything, though, you owe taxpayers, whose hard-earned tax dollars were used for dubious political propaganda an apology as well as an amount of $297,600 which you should swiftly return to them."
So far, Fabry tells me, Gruber has failed to reply--nor have Pelosi, Waxman, and the others publically raised the issue with President Barack Obama or HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Their level of outrage, it seems, depends entirely, as has been written before, on whose ox it is that is being gored.