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House, Senate Committee Leaders Seek Answers on Federal Dollars Used to Lobby for Trumpcare

Jun 15, 2017
Press Release
Ranking Democrats Ask GAO to Investigate Political Lobbying By HHS to Support the AHCA and Undermine the ACA

The Ranking Members of four congressional committees today announced a letter requesting the Government Accountability Office (GAO) look into evidence that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was improperly lobbying Congress to support the American Health Care Act (AHCA), a clear misuse of funds that may violate federal law. The AHCA is legislation that would repeal the Affordable Care Act and raise costs for millions of people—all while giving insurance and drug companies and the very wealthy tax breaks and delivering a hollow political win for the President.

“In recent months, at least two of the Department’s official Twitter accounts have promoted the American Health Care Act – legislation that is now pending before the Congress,” the Ranking Members wrote. “These actions appear to violate restrictions on the use of the Department’s appropriations for supporting the enactment of legislation pending before Congress, in this case, a legislative proposal that would repeal the Affordable Care Act and leave 23 million Americans without health insurance.”

The letter, written by Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray, D-Wash., House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Richard Neal, D-Mass, and House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., comes as the Trump administration continues to undermine the individual health insurance market at every turn, and Senate Republicans continue to write their bill in secret without any committee hearings or public input.

The full letter can be found here and below.

The Honorable Gene L. Dodaro

Comptroller General of the United States

Government Accountability Office
441 G St., NW
Washington, DC 20548

Dear Comptroller Dodaro:

We write concerning the legality of the use of the Department of Health and Human Services’ (“Department”) communications channels to promote health care legislation currently pending before Congress.

In recent months, at least two of the Department’s official Twitter accounts have promoted the American Health Care Act (“AHCA”) – legislation that is now pending before the Congress. These actions appear to violate restrictions on the use of the Department’s appropriations for supporting the enactment of legislation pending before Congress, in this case, a legislative proposal that would repeal the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) and leave 23 million Americans without health insurance.

Our committees share jurisdiction over the Department and oversight responsibilities for implementation of the ACA.  The Government Accountability Office’s (“GAO”) responsibilities with regards to the oversight of appropriations laws includes providing opinions to Members and Committees of Congress concerning the use of and accountability for public funds (31 U.S.C.§ 3526, 3529) and rendering decisions regarding agency uses of such funds (31 U.S.C. § 3527, 3528). GAO recently addressed similar issues arising within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

The @HHSGov and @HHSMedia accounts have repeatedly called for passage of the pending Republican healthcare legislation, explicitly using its acronym, AHCA. The accounts also use a popular Republican moniker, “#RepealAndReplace,” in tweets that echo the Administration’s call to repeal the ACA.  In turn, the “RepealAndReplace” hashtag links to a number of trending tweets associated with the same hashtag, which include tweets urging people to, for example, “Call Congress at 202-234-3121 and demand full repeal of ObamaCare.”  By using the hashtag “RepealandReplace,” the Department appears to be appealing to the public to contact Congress in favor of pending legislation in violation of the grassroots lobbying prohibition.

The accounts also have posted video testimonies of people speaking out against the ACA, which appears to be designed to increase opposition to current law while building support for pending Republican legislation.  These videos, which appear to have been produced by the Department, bear no information identifying the Department as the source of the videos.  If individuals took these clips, and reposted or otherwise rebroadcasted the videos separate from the initial tweet, this would appear to be a violation of the prohibition on agency engaging in covert propaganda.

In addition, the accounts have reposted a series of tweets and videos produced by third parties that advocate for passage of the AHCA and/or repeal of the ACA. In one case, the HHSMedia account retweeted a Fox & Friends post on March 24th that said “.@SecPriceMD urges the House to pass American Health Care Act,” and links to a video in which Secretary Price makes direct appeals to Congress, saying “[i]t’s time to put up your vote. We need to pass this again so we can move forward with the entire plan … We need to do this to fulfill the President’s promise to the American people on the campaign to repeal and replace Obamacare.” In another instance, the HHSMedia account retweeted a tweet sent by Secretary Price that links to a video in which Secretary Price promoted the Republican health care bill and urges “every single senator to engage” in the legislative process related to it.

We are especially concerned by these actions because they appear to continue a pattern of behavior by the Department of using federal resources to advance partisan legislation. The LA Times recently reported that CMS Administrator Verma told insurance executives that the Administration would make cost-sharing reduction payments if the insurance industry offered its support for the AHCA. We raised concerns about this episode in a letter to Administrator Verma on May 19, 2017, but have not yet received a response.

Section 503(a) of the Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 115-13) bans using federal funds to publish electronic communications that support legislation before Congress:

No part of any appropriation contained in this Act or transferred pursuant to section 4002 of Public Law 111–148 shall be used, other than for normal and recognized executive-legislative relationships, for publicity or propaganda purposes, for the preparation, distribution, or use of any kit, pamphlet, booklet, publication, electronic communication, radio, television, or video presentation designed to support or defeat the enactment of legislation before the Congress or any State or local legislature or legislative body, except in presentation to the Congress or any State or local legislature itself, or designed to support or defeat any proposed or pending regulation, administrative action, or order issued by the executive branch of any State or local government, except in presentation to the executive branch of any State or local government itself.

In addition to potential violations of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, the tweets and their ancillary content may have violated federal statute, in particular, the Anti-Lobbying Act (18 U.S.C. § 1913). It seems likely that government employees produced the tweets, and the video content may have been developed at government facilities using government equipment. The Anti-Lobbying Act explicitly prohibits the use of appropriations to directly or indirectly pay for material designed “to influence in any matter a Member of Congress … to favor, adopt, or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation, law, ratification, policy or appropriation.”

We therefore request that the GAO review these matters for compliance with the appropriations laws that ban certain electronic communications, covert propaganda and grass roots lobbying, specifically Section 503(a) of the Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 115-13) and the Anti-Lobbying Act (18 U.S.C. § 1913) and other applicable laws and regulations.  In order to assist in your review, we have attached examples of social media posts that we believe may violate restrictions on the use of appropriated funds by the Department.

Thank you for your attention to this importance matter.

Sincerely,

Ron Wyden

Ranking Member

Senate Finance Committee

 

Patty Murray

Ranking Member

Senate HELP Committee

 

Richard Neal

Ranking Member

House Committee on Ways and Means

 

Frank Pallone, Jr.

Ranking Member

House Committee on Energy and Commerce

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