This past week, tens of millions of Americans received a letter from the Internal Revenue Service notifying them of the stimulus payments they should have received by now in their bank accounts.
The letter served two purposes: to be sure the recipients got the money, and to provide President Joe Biden with some taxpayer-funded advertising.
The latter is galling to anyone who thinks the public’s money should not be spent for a politician’s privately motivated purpose. Yet, the practice has become more and more common among those in public office from both parties at the federal and state levels.
If Biden wants to pat his administration on the back, he’s already done that plenty of times in his public comments, including at this past week’s State of the Union address. He should not be piggybacking on what portends to be an official government function to remind the American people that he is making good on his post-election promise that “help was on the way.”
The letter seems intentionally designed to blur the lines between politics and what is supposed to be an apolitical government agency. The envelope has the return address of the IRS, and the postal insignia indicates the agency also picked up the tab for what had to be a multimillion-dollar postage cost. The letter inside, however, is on White House letterhead.
The form and substance of the communication followed nearly exactly a similar letter mailed a year ago after Congress approved the first round of pandemic relief payments. Back then, Democrats were yelling foul both over the letter and the deal Donald Trump struck with his treasury secretary to put Trump’s name on the memo line of the paper checks that went out to those who didn’t have bank accounts registered with the IRS.
Initially the Republican president wanted his name to be on the signature line, but that idea got axed after it was pointed out that a president is not legally allowed to sign disbursements from the Treasury Department.
Maybe it was a small reform that Biden didn’t sign the paper checks for the latest round of stimulus payments, but that wasn’t much of a sacrifice, since only 10% of recipients got the money that way.
In Mississippi, it has also become common practice for those who hold state office to try to steal some free advertising for themselves out of the normal functions of their respective offices.
State Treasurer David McRae’s face or voice appears in almost every ad promoting anything his office does, from alerting the public about unclaimed property to encouraging them to enroll their children or grandchildren in the state’s prepaid college tuition programs. He and every other state officeholder use their official state websites to promote not only their agency but themselves. McRae is arguably the most shameless of them all. The first thing you see when you open the state Treasury Department’s website is McRae’s mug taking up nearly half of the screen.
Mississippi’s ethics laws are based on the foundation that those who serve in public office should not use their position for private gain. But apparently those laws are silent as to whether using public spending for subliminally political purposes crosses the line.
Reform-minded lawmakers should try to tackle the issue.
Although Mississippi is run largely by Republicans, and a Republican-dominated Legislature wants to keep it that way, it is a betrayal of conservative principles about responsible spending for this to be allowed to go on. It shouldn’t be too hard to build a bipartisan coalition to work out at least some modest reforms.
If nothing else, the law could bar incumbents from appearing in any taxpayer-funded advertising related to their office and its official duties. It could also restrict how large their image can be, and where it and their biography can be placed, on their office’s websites. Currently, many of them make this veiled self-promotion the first thing a visitor to the site sees.
Incumbency already has a huge advantage in terms of name recognition. Letting incumbents use taxpayer dollars to increase that advantage is unfair, not to mention an unjustified expenditure of public money.
It’s only going to get worse if it’s allowed to go unchecked.