The problem of both direct and indirect taxpayer support for lobbying is a serious one. Even the theoretically best of congressional intentions can be badly perverted by federal grantors and activist grantees. For instance, in the name of preventing alcohol abuse, the Department of Health and Human Services, through the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (one of three constituent parts of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), has used public funds to promote media and political campaigns for higher excise taxes, restrictions on advertising, and destruction of private billboards. At times officials appear to have skirted the ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying, violating the spirit if not the letter of the law.
SAMHSA’s formal objective is to improve “prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation services for people with substance abuse and mental illnesses.” Similarly, CSAP’s programs “are designed to help eliminate or reduce alcohol, tobacco, and other drug problems in our society. The Center supports partnerships at all levels and with all sectors of society to help create a national comprehensive prevention agenda for everyone’s benefit.”
Few could disagree with such goals in theory. In practice, however, CSAP is interested in far more than substance abuse. All too often the agency has interpreted its mission—through its grant process, research support, organizational activities, and public pronouncements—as organizing local activists to attack people’s drinking preferences. Thus, CSAP treats political campaigns on alcohol advertising, availability, prices, and taxation as if they were nonpartisan health debates.
Among the leading beneficiaries of federal largesse in this area is the Marin Institute. The Institute’s formal mission, of reducing “the toll of alcohol and other drug problems,” is, again, one with which few could disagree. However, the Marin Institute does far more than discourage problem drinkers. For example, the organization explains that “effective prevention must incorporate principles of social justice and a special focus on populations that have been traditionally disenfranchised” and emphasizes that it develops “new resources and strategies that are on the forefront of the prevention field and that do not shrink from controversy.” Similarly, Institute Senior Fellow James Mosher wrote in Annual Review of Public Health that “the new alcohol policy movement offers the entire public health field the opportunity to reach new constituencies. In keeping with the nature of the problems it is designed to prevent, the approach cuts across ideological, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic divisions in our society and provides the means to build a coalition for broad social change in regard to health policy.”
The Institute devotes significant resources to creating state and national networks of community activists. Nor is the Institute shy about offering political opinions: it opposed cutbacks in the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control which, it explained, would “severely limit the agency’s ability to enforce laws that are designed to support the health of our communities.” The Institute went on to urge readers to write letters, canvass neighbors, and “build a local coalition” to “support the ABC.”
Politics the Intent
Politics is not merely a byproduct of CSAP grants to groups like the Marin Institute. It often appears to be the agency’s goal. CSAP has, for instance, labored mightily to equip activist organizations to lobby not only federal officials, but also state and local governments. The agency provided nearly one million dollars between 1990 and 1993 for the Marin Institute’s youth Alcohol Environment On-Line Information Project. The project was directed against the alcohol industry which, of course, was considered to be creating the “environment” with which the Institute was disatisfied. According to the formal grant proposal, the Institute intended to “compile the only special collection of materials on the alcohol beverage industry in existence outside of the industry itself.” Indeed, the Institute’s Media and Policy Center, explained the proposal, “is creating ALCNET, an on-line computer network to meet the needs of media advocates in the alcohol field for rapid communication regarding media opportunities.” Federal funds underwrote the creation of a daily on-line news summary regarding youth alcohol problems, an on-line database consisting of industry materials “relevant” to the prevention of such problems. The Institute then planned to promote use of the network by the individuals and organizations with which it had been working.
Although the project was formally directed at drinking by children, it was clearly intended to assist political activists in counteracting advertising by the alcohol industry. Advertising, explained the Institute, “creates an environment in which the messages of the alcohol beverage industry’s multibillion dollar promotional campaigns are reinforced at every turn.” Hence, enter Washington doling out taxpayer funds. The federally-subsidized “media advocacy” project, explained the Institute’s grant proposal, “tries to reframe health issues to focus on industry practices as a primary problem, exposing them as exploitive and unethical.”
Indeed, the Institute stated that this project would have been useful in handling past queries from local “alcohol control activists.” Among the issues it cited were the industry’s response to activists’ positions, industrial ownership patterns, industry efforts to curtail sales to minors, state experience in amending dram shop laws, the backgroud of industry spokesmen, industry promotional expenditures, likely industry arguments, industry product and promotional strategies, and industry philanthropic activities. Explained the Institute, “This list gives some representation of the kinds of questions activists need answers to as they try to implement environmental change and practice media advocacy.” Virtually none of these questions have anything to do with health or substance abuse; rather, almost all involve political attacks on the alcohol industry and the very idea of social drinking. In short, taxpayers are paying to help activists lobby to, for instance, impose higher excise taxes on the very same taxpayers.
CSAP has underwritten other Marin Institute “media advocacy” projects. Similarly, the University Research Corporation (URC) of Bethesda, Maryland, another agency grantee, put together a set of “media advocacy case studies” at CSAP’s behest. The report— which, naturally, explained that it did not necessarily reflect the agency’s position—highlighted activists’ use of the media in “reducing the presence of alcohol and tobacco advertising and sales in their neighborhoods.” CSAP’s underlying political agenda was clear: local activists “had to take on government and business. In some cases, they changed or created city and local ordinances. In other cases, they changed the policies and practices of advertising companies, stores, and even manufacturers.”
Among the examples compiled at taxpayer expense was a San Diego campaign, involving ACT UP, among other gay groups, to link alcohol with the transmission of AIDS, increase alcohol excise taxes, expand condom availability, and eliminate advertising tying alcohol to sex. Numerous media stunts were suggested, including “using a gigantic blow-up beer bottle with a condom over it.” Alas, explained the URC, “this was an appealing image but one not used.” The report goes on to quote one local activist who explained that: “We need sex, kids, gays, motion, emotion, and real university researchers.” In the end, ACT UP members smashed beer bottles for the press and one activist dressed in a beer can costume, over whom someone else placed a body-size condom. Although ACT UP and other organizations are obviously free to stage a show like this any time they wish, Congress should review the appropriateness of having a federal agency use public funds to promote this sort of bizarre political activism.
Another questionable initiative, entitled “Media Advocacy in African-American and Latino Communities and On-Line,” was directed at minorities. The publication offered a broadside against alcohol and tobacco advertising. For instance, it celebrated community activists who had “used the media like a searchlight, pointing its beam in the direction of what they wanted changed.” The result was to reduce “the presence of alcohol and tobacco advertising and sales in their neighborhoods,” particularly through billboards. But CSAP promoted more than just protests against billboards. The Center included a chapter on “Artfux,” so-called guerrilla artists who deface private billboards with alcohol advertising. The members of Artfux, reported the CSAP publication, “did not fear taking on corporate America.” Since 1989 the group has illegally altered 41 billboards, painting their own messages. Reported CSAP approvingly:
While Artfux recognized that the billboards were private property, these artists viewed their actions as the lesser of two evils. They argued that their revision of the alcohol and tobacco ads was in no way comparable to censorship, since their efforts had an insignificant impact on the industries’ combined five billion dollar annual marketing campaigns. Furthermore, Artfux contended that they were providing health information that was hidden from the public by the alcohol and tobacco industries.
CSAP went on to list the “lessons learned,” including that “sensationalism makes news” and “even with a sensational event, careful planning is necessary.” The report’s following chapter discussed the political activities of the Association for Responsible Alcohol Control, which campaigned for approval of more restrictive land use regulations to reduce the number of liquor stores. The Center then summed up the lessons of ARAC’s experience, including the importance of media contacts in local political efforts.
Whether or not local groups are justified in using these and other tactics, Congress should ask the question: why is the federal government using tax money to promote their activities? (CSAP’s glowing presentation of the organizations’ efforts belies its disclaimer of support.) In the name of restraining abuse, political activists, aided by the federal government, are lobbying local officials to interfere with responsible drinking by the vast majority of Americans.
CSAP also touts the importance of media advocacy training, which provides its staffers with “the necessary skills to enable them to seek out and take advantage of media outreach opportunities such as local radio or newspaper interviews as they travel.” This fall the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services are sponsoring a symposium, “Covering Alcohol and other Drug Issues on Campus” for college journalists, at which the 1995 Journalism Competition winner will be announced. Participation, students are assured, is “virtually free! Airfare, lodging, and most meals cost you nothing!” The agenda is highly political, with a presentation on “The Marketing of Alcoholic Beverages” by a representative of the left-leaning, regulatory-minded Center for Science in the Public Interest. Other workshops cover “Editor as Advocate” and “When Advertisers Protest.” Equally important is the agency’s media work in training local activists. One CSAP publication cited Ruth Ann Lipic, from Illinois, who stated that training by the CSAP Communications Team gave her “a professional edge, courage, and techniques to use.” Last October CSAP sponsored a conference on the Future of Media Advocacy. The purpose of the meeting was to share information with media activists and “to advance the practice of media advocacy and broaden support for it.”
The Center explained that: “Reducing [alcohol and tobacco] advertising and limiting where and how these products may be served or sold; decreasing the number and placement of alcohol distribution outlets; limiting hours that alcohol distributors are in service; increasing excise taxes of alcohol; and raising awareness of the media’s glamorous portraysl of [alcohol and tobacco] use are examples of social or public policies that have been advanced by community groups through the use of media advocacy techniques.” Every one of these goals involves lobbying and political activism.
Organizing Political Activists
The agency also helps organize activists whose objectives are more political action than public health. For instance, CSAP helped develop and promote the National Prevention League (recently renamed the National Drug Prevention League), made up of private organizations, and the National Prevention Council, consisting of state and local groups. Federal money has also been used to assist activists in attending NDPL functions, even though the League considers itself to be a “supergroup” advocacy organization intending to create a national network to “allow for and support effective action.” Meaning excise tax hikes and the like.
The NDPL, in turn, is devoted to promoting CSAP’s bureaucratic agenda. One element of that is social activism. According to the minutes of the initial meeting, prepared by Executive Director Sue Rusche, “a general consensus emerged that a need exists for a united effort to basically change societal norms.” This naturally requires local political campaigns directed against legal and responsible drinking. Indeed, CSAP’s predecessor agency, OSAP, sponsored a national conference on Media Opportunities on Alcohol in October 1988, at which “smoking control and alcohol control activists” discussed “creative epidemiology,” which “brings together research and media advocacy, reworking data so they can be presented in a new and interesting form,” and criticism of the industry, which allow “health advocates to create controversy which can illuminate the need for review and reform of public health policies, and energize communities and promotional targets (i.e. youth) to act to achieve these reforms.” In other words, a federal agency with taxpayer funds helped alcohol neo-prohibitionists learn political lessons from opponents of tobacco.
Thus, the ultimate result of many CSAP grants is lobbying, albeit often at the local level. For instance, in a study funded by CSAP, James Mosher, with the Marin Institute, and Ellen Frank, of the University of California at Berkeley, laud the increased willingness of state and local governments to reduce minimun drinking age laws, pass legislation reducing blood alcohol content levels (even though the latter actually do little to address the problem of drunk drivers, who normally have BAC levels far above the minimum), and increase restrictions on alcohol availability. Nevertheless, they remain frustrated because “policy enactment has been stalled on other fronts notably on measures that would directly affect alcohol marketing practices,” often because of intense alcohol industry lobbying.”
Not to fear, though. The activist groups subsidized by CSAP usually push this political agenda. Explain Mosher and Frank: “alcohol policy activists have sought to build support among citizens’ groups and professional organizations. This effort has had many successes, most notably in the building of national coalitions for the enactment of warning label legislation, alcohol advertising reform, and increases in alcohol excise taxes.” Although federal funds are not to be used to directly aid such endeavors, supporting groups that lobby, assisting their “media advocacy” campaigns, and paying for reports such as that from Mosher and Frank, which assesses “the extent to which the alcohol policy agenda has reached new constituencies” and critiques industry financial support for nonprofit groups, is effectively the same thing. Indeed, Mosher and Frank observe that “in at least two cases, our telephone inquiries appeared to spur consideration of the policies within the organization.”
Finally, CSAP, like most federal agencies, works hard to use past funding to preserve future funding. Of course, it is not supposed to formally lobby but CSAP appears to consciously skirt the law. One strategy involves creating new lobbying organizations, such as the National Drug Prevention League. According to Dr. Michael Dana, CSAP’s Director of the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs, the NDPL “will create mechanisms to discuss ways to educate the appropriate individuals, to make the case that prevention is the way to have an effect on drug use over the long haul.” Among the “appropriate individuals” are congressmen and congresswomen. As Executive Director Sue Rusche puts it: “Hardly anybody understands what prevention is, and certainly that has to apply to the United States Congress.” Among NDPL’s official positions are opposition to block grants and funding cuts. In early January Rusche responded to proposals to eliminate government bureaus: “It seems totally foolhardy to dismantle federal agencies, but I’m afraid that might happen.” It is no wonder, then, that the NDPL “is rushing to action now because of a perceived congressional threat to the very foundation of prevention programs.” The group’s activities were further described as “intended to enable prevention to reach a new level of influence in the public policy arena.”
CSAP also attempts to turn program beneficiaries into lobbyists. The Center’s 1993 Prevention Conference devoted two sessions to the operation of congressional authorization andappropriation processes. While a session on how to apply to CSAP for a grant of money appropriated by Congress would be legitimate, a review of the appropriation process acts as an open invitation for grantees to press Congress for more grant money for CSAP—and, ultimately, to conference participants.
Moreover, CSAP employees play an important role in advocacy groups that support continued federal funding of SAMHSA, CSAP, and similar agencies. For example, a half dozen federal workers play significant roles in the Alcohol, Tobacco, and other Drugs Committee of the American Public Health Association: Laura Flinchbaugh of CSAP is Secretary; Bettina Scott of SAMHSA chairs the Committee on Advocacy for Empowerment; Bob Volliner of CSAP is co-chair of the Resolution Committee; and Nelia Nadal and Patricia Wright, both of CSAP, are Section Councilors. Along with supporting the proposal to turn Washington, D.C., into the state of New Columbia, APHA also endorses stricter local regulations on alcohol and tobacco and discourages health organizations from accepting funds from alcohol and tobacco companies. Moreover, after last November’s election, APHA issued “A Call to Action!” and warned “Public Health THREATENED” on the front page of its newsletter. The organization went on to report on threats to SAMHSA funding and give advice on how to lobby policymakers and write letters to the editor and opinion pieces for newspapers. Finally, Association Executive Director, Fernando Trevino, closed with a call for contributions for the Public Health Advancement Fund. Explained Dr. Trevino: “the challenges presented by the new 104th Congress mean that we, the public health professionals of the United States, must come together once again for action—this time perhaps for the survival of public health as we know it.”
In fact, CSAP (then OSAP) has been reprimanded for illicit political activities. Two years ago the General Accounting Office concluded that: OSAP did not violate the law restricting use of appropriated funds for lobbying in it publications or in any of its own activities. However, an OSAP grantee violated the lobbying restriction in connection with the Alcohol Policy VIII conference. Also, grass roots lobbying took place at the Healthy People/Healthy Environments conference, funded by HHS, although without any prior knowledge or complicity by either OSAP or HHS.
Having received this official warning, CSAP would, if concerned about the law, have been exercising greater caution in its own activities and tighter oversight of its grantees’ projects. In fact, the Center seems willing to operate as close to the line of illegal lobbying as possible.
The days of sacred budget cows, however popular their purpose, is over. The yawning deficit alone requires reconsideration of every expenditure, especially if agencies are misusing federal monies for political purposes.
The experience with CSAP suggests that Congress needs to carefully review the record of all agencies that make discretionary grants to private and nonprofit groups. More intensive inspector general investigations, attention to lobbying of state as well as federal officials, and, most importantly, a willingness to cut off miscreants, would all help reduce the problem.