Department of Health and Human Services--Use of Appropriated Funds for "HealthReform.gov" Web site and "State Your Support" Web page
B-319075: Apr 23, 2010
This responds to your request for a legal opinion regarding the Department of Health and Human Services's (HHS's) use of appropriated funds for the HealthReform.gov Web site and a Web page within that site, the State Your Support Web page. Specifically, you asked whether the opportunity for the public to sign electronic form letters stating support for the Administration's health care reform initiative violated the prohibitions on the use of appropriations for grassroots lobbying, including 18 U.S.C. 1913, and for publicity or propaganda activities, as contained in the Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009. As explained below, we conclude that HHS did not violate the grassroots lobbying prohibitions nor did it violate the publicity or propaganda prohibition.
The use of appropriated funds to create and operate the HealthReform.gov Web site and the State your Support Web page did not violate the prohibitions on grassroots lobbying or publicity or propaganda. The Web site and Web page did not constitute grassroots lobbying because they contained no clear, direct appeal to the public to contact Members of Congress in support of or in opposition to health care reform. They also did not violate the publicity or propaganda prohibition because nothing within the Web site or Web page constituted communications that are purely partisan, self-aggrandizement, or covert. HHS views the form letter as similar to a survey to gauge public interest in the President's policy proposals. HHS also asserts that the form letter was a more effective tool to communicate its policies because Web users, by signing the letter and submitting contact information, would be more likely to focus on the content of the message. Asking Web users to sign a form letter may be an unorthodox tool to gauge public opinion or communicate policies, and we express no opinion as to the effectiveness of such a tool to achieve HHS's stated goals. However, in light of our determination that the communications did not constitute a violation of the prohibitions on lobbying or publicity or propaganda, and in keeping with the discretion we have historically afforded agencies in their information activities (B-302504), we do not legally object to the department's use of appropriated funds for this activity.