House Democrats seek to block funds for 'defeat despair' Covid ads
House Democrats overseeing the Trump administration's coronavirus response will introduce a largely symbolic bill intended to limit the administration's ability to spend federal funds on certain coronavirus-related advertisements before the election, according to a draft shared first with POLITICO.
The Defeat Pandemic Propaganda Act of 2020 is authored by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), joined by Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y), Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). The Democrats' bill would bar HHS from using taxpayer funds on an ad campaign to "positively influence public perception regarding the Covid–19 pandemic," specifically distort any facts or encourage risky behaviors amid the outbreak.
"[F]ederally-funded advertisements meant to cast the situation in a positive light or suggest there is no longer a need to take public health precautions would be wholly unethical, especially in the weeks before a presidential election,” Krishnamoorthi said in a statement. A spokesperson for Krishnamoorthi acknowledged the difficulty of movingsuch legislation forward in a split Congress weeks before the election.
Maloney oversees the House Oversight Committee while Clyburn and Krishnamoorthi are subcommittee chairs; the three lawmakers last week expanded their probe into the Trump administration's planned ad campaign on coronavirus following a pair of POLITICO reports. Meanwhile, DeLauro oversees the House Appropriations subcommittee that holds HHS' pursestrings.
POLITICO first reported on the administration's plan to bid a $250 million contract to "inspire hope and defeat despair" about the virus, and last month detailed the ad campaign's stumbles as celebrities backed away and contractors struggled to complete the ads before the election.
Michael Caputo, the health department's top public affairs official who is now on medical leave, last month said in a Facebook Live video that President Donald Trump personally "demanded" the campaign. Democrats have charged that the campaign is politically motivated to boost perceptions of Trump's handling of the virus before the election.
Asked about the plans for the ad campaign and Democrats' concerns, a spokesperson for the Health and Human Services department on Tuesday said that there was "an urgent and compelling need for consistent and coordinated public health messaging" around Covid-19. Secretary Alex Azar also testified to the House Oversight committee last week that he had begun a "strategic review" of the campaign to ensure that it serves a public health purpose.