The Bush White House mounted an "unprecedented" political effort to use top officials and taxpayer funds to promote Republican Congressional candidates during the 2006 election cycle, according to a congressional investigation.
The White House Office of Political Affairs deployed roughly 30 cabinet secretaries and other top officials over 300 times to key districts around the country -- often on the government's dime -- to appear at political functions supporting Republican candidates, concluded the probe by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
In 2006, the Bush White House was facing a fast-rising tide of anti-Republican sentiment that threatened to sweep Democrats into the majority in both the House and Senate. In a largely fruitless effort to stem that tide, Bush's Office of Political Affairs dispatched 32 top officials to make a total of 326 appearances supporting 99 Republican candidates, according to today's draft report by the committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Ca).
"On average, Administration officials participated in more then one event per day with Republican candidates from January 1, 2006 to November 7, 2006," the report states. "In October 2006, the month before the election, the rate of events increased to three per day."
The Office of Political Affairs (OPA), according to the report, mounted an extensive coordination strategy by developing "target lists" of Republican candidates who were in tight races. These lists were then used to develop recommendations for travel by cabinet secretaries and other top officials to key districts. The OPA would then distribute weekly "Suggested Event" memos, according the report, and "kept close tabs on whether agencies were fulfilling White House recommendations."
Agencies were at times also encouraged to classify the travel for these events as official in order to use taxpayer funds to pay for them, according to the report.
The report quotes one email from an official in the OPA to the White House liaison at the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding a campaign event in Washington State attended by the Secretary of the VA. The report states that in the email the OPA official asked whether there was any "official component" of the travel, explaining: "Needless to say, trying to save the campaign as much $$ as possible."
The White House today called the report "Congressman Waxman's transparent attempt to make political hay," saying that his "endeavors tend to be a colossal waste of time and taxpayer money."
"For many, many years, throughout Republican and Democrat Administrations, there has been an Office of Political Affairs," said Deputy White House Press Secretary Scott Stanzel. "The office is there to assist the President in his role as head of his party. For decades, Administrations have briefed their political appointees on the landscape in which they are working to implement the President's vision and Cabinet officials have traveled to talk about the important priorities of the Administration."
The report also states that "even offices with statutory provisions prohibiting political activity" were enlisted in the OPA's efforts. The efforts were otherwise legal – but should not have been, according to the report. The committee advocated outlawing the White House Office of Political Affairs, or restructuring it "to ensure that it serves the interests of the taxpayer, not the political party of the President."
The ranking minority member of the committee, Tom Davis (R-Va) said today that the report is "hopelessly political" and that he was "deeply skeptical about the methodology and seriousness" of the report.
"They set out to find banned political activity in the White House," Davis said. "Instead, the Committee Democrats found the same kinds of things done by every Administration since Eisenhower. Their angry swooning just doesn't pass the smell test."
The OPA was created by former President Ronald Reagan in 1981. In the 1990s, then-President Bill Clinton ran similar but more modest efforts to boost Democratic campaigns from the same office. During the 1996 election cycle, a plan from the office detailed 89 trips by 13 cabinet secretaries and other top officials to help Democratic candidates.
Jon Garcia contributed to this report.