Most employees in an agency have a firm belief in the justification of their agency’s mission. One would expect that agency employees generally believe in the mission of their agency or they would eventually move to a new job in another organization more compatible with their individual philosophy and beliefs.
But, while an agency employee can fervently support what an agency does, there are restrictions—at least in theory.
For example, the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act prohibits the use of appropriated funds for indirect or grassroots lobbying in support of or in opposition to pending legislation. This law states:
“No part of any funds appropriated in this or any other Act shall be used by an agency of the executive branch, other than for normal and recognized executive-legislative relationships, for publicity or propaganda purposes, and for the preparation, distribution or use of any kit, pamphlet, booklet, publication, radio, television, or film presentation designed to support or defeat legislation pending before the Congress, except in presentation to the Congress itself.”
This provision has provided problems for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
On July 31, 2013, the deputy secretary of HUD sent an email to over 1000 people. The email was sent to members of the public requesting they contact named Senators in support of the Senate’s version of the Department of Transportation, HUD, and Related Agencies appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014.
According to the GAO, the July 2013 email followed a number of communications that HUD’s Deputy Secretary previously had with “stakeholders” in an effort to advance final passage of the bill. The email asked those receiving the email to take the following actions, among others:
- to defend against efforts by some Republicans to prevent the underlying bill from coming up for a vote or to enact harmful amendments such as those that would cut some of the important funding in the bill.
- for example, Senators should vote ‘No’ against Senator Coburn’s Amendment 1754 which would have a devastating effect on our homeless population.”
The email listed 17 senators on whom the recipients should focus their attention.
HUD did not deny its appeal to the public to contact specific senators regarding pending legislation. But, it argued, this was legal because the deputy secretary was a presidential appointee who had been confirmed by the Senate. HUD contended that Congress “expressly authorized” the lobbying activities of officials in positions such as the deputy secretary by its continued appropriation of funds for positions with responsibilities that include seeking support for an administration’s legislative program.
The GAO disagreed. It noted that legislation demonstrated that Congress sought to prevent department heads from using appropriated funds for grassroots “mass-mailing” campaigns to “create artificially the impression that there [was] a ground swell of public support for the Executive’s position on a given piece of legislation.”
The GAO concluded that agency officials have broad authority to educate the public on their policies and views. But, it wrote, there is a clear rule that was violated in this instance: “evidence of a clear agency appeal to the public to contact members of Congress in support of or in opposition to pending legislation is a violation of this prohibition.”