With his administration under fire for its questionable publicity practices, President George W. Bush explicitly forbid his Cabinet on Wednesday to pay commentators to promote his policies.
"We will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda," Bush said at a news conference. "Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."
Asked whether he approved of using taxpayer money to pay commentators -- as Department of Education officials did in putting Armstrong Williams, a conservative writer and broadcaster, under contract in 2003 to advance the No Child Left Behind Act -- Bush gave his most direct condemnation to date.
"No," he said.
In recent months, both the investigative arm of Congress and Democrats have objected to government-financed campaigns to promote specific policies, specifically a new Medicare bill and drug enforcement measures.
The criticism grew on Wednesday with news that a second columnist, Maggie Gallagher, had been under government contract. That disclosure sparked new demands for broad federal inquiries and coincided with the release of a report from House Democrats finding that federal agencies had increased their use of outside public relations firms.
Gallagher, a marriage expert who has testified before Congress, admitted she had erred in failing to disclose to her readers a US$21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services for writing and advisory work about marriage policy. Her column is nationally syndicated.
But she drew a distinction between her work and that of Williams, saying she had been hired for her expertise, not to disseminate the views of the administration.
"I've been a marriage expert, researcher and advocate for nearly 20 years," Gallagher wrote about her dual role, which she disclosed in her column on Tuesday after being approached on the subject by a The Washington Post reporter.
"It is not uncommon for researchers, scholars, or experts to get paid by the government to do work relating to their field of expertise," Gallagher said.
Her work for the department included helping on an essay that appeared in Crisis Magazine under the byline of Wade Horn, an assistant secretary at the department, and giving a talk at a lunch for department employees about her marriage research, Horn said.
"There was never a penny that went to Maggie Gallagher that was being paid to her to utilize her role as a columnist to promote the president's healthy marriage initiative," Horn said. "Not a penny."
In May 2002, five months after the date shown on her contract, Gallagher mounted a strong defense of the US$300 million Bush initiative in a column posted on National Review Online.
Several Democrats and advocacy groups criticized her for failing to disclose her government contracts and called for the Government Accountability Office to look into the matter.