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Molding taxpayer minds by using taxpayer money

In communist East Berlin, one sign of the government's swollen self-regard was the cluttering of public spaces with propaganda banners by which the government praised itself for providing socialism. In Washington today, the Department of Education building is an advertisement for its occupants.

Eight entrances are framed by make-believe little red schoolhouses labeled "No Child Left Behind." High on the building's front are two other advertisements: Large banners hector passers-by to visit NoChildLeftBehind.gov.

This building-as-billboard is the workplace of those eager beavers who had this brainstorm: Let's pay a million taxpayer dollars to a public relations firm to manufacture enthusiasm for No Child Left Behind, including a $241,000 payment to columnist and television talk-show host Armstrong Williams for his praise of the legislation. The eager beavers are long on energy but short on judgment.

Just 10 years ago Washington trembled because many Republicans who had won in the cymbal-crash elections of 1994 had vowed to abolish the Education Department. Education, they said, is a quintessentially state and local responsibility. But soon Republicans in Congress and a Republican president were deepening Washington's reach into education. In 1996 Republican appropriators gave the department a 15.7 percent increase in discretionary spending. And No Child Left Behind increased federal education spending more than any increase requested by President Clinton, who was the teachers' unions' poodle. Some of that money went to Williams.

When conservatives break with their principles, they seem to become casual about breaking the law, too. Last year the General Accounting Office accused the Department of Health and Human Services of illegal spending when it distributed fake "news" videos which were used by 40 local stations around the country. In them the many benefits of the new Medicare prescription drug entitlement were "reported" by a fake reporter. The English language version of these "video news releases" concluded, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting."

This scofflaw enterprise was an appropriate coda to the lawless making of this law. Republican leaders traduced House procedures by holding open the vote for three hours, giving them time to pressure sensibly reluctant legislators. And the Justice Department says the Bush administration broke no law when the Medicare program's chief actuary was told he would be fired if he gave Congress his estimate that the program's 10-year cost would be a third more than the $400-billion the administration claimed.

The GAO has frequently had occasion to insist that taxpayers' money cannot be used when the "obvious purpose is "self-aggrandizement' or "puffery.' " Last week it had another occasion, chastising the Office of National Drug Control Policy for also disseminating fake news videos.

It is difficult to calculate how many billions of dollars the government spends on indefensible, if not illegal, self-promotion. Democrats, too, have violated the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of laws that contain language such as "no part of any appropriation contained in this Act shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by the Congress." But conservatives should be less aggressive than Democrats in using taxpayers' money to mold taxpayers' minds.

It is impossible to draw a bright line between legitimate informing and illegitimate propagandizing by government. What is indispensable is common sense, and that is atrophying as this lawyer-ridden nation sinks deeper into the delusion that sensible behavior can be comprehensively codified.

Government by the consent of the governed should not mean government by consent produced by government propaganda. Unfortunately, as government's pretensions grow, so does its sense that its glorious ends justify even the tackiest means.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is georgewillwashpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

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