By Molly K. Hooper - 05/24/10 11:41 PM EDT
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) was so infuriated the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was holding a contest with cash prizes, she decided to enter it herself.
Blackburn’s anger was sparked by the EPA’s “Rulemaking Matters!” competition, which asks entrants to create “a short video, not exceeding 90 seconds in length, explaining why rules are important, why the average American should care about federal regulations and how people can participate in the rulemaking process,” according to the EPA’s website.
Weeks went by with no response, so Blackburn, a fiscal conservative, opted to enter the contest herself, saying that if she won she would return the $2,500 prize to the federal government.
She told The Hill she doubts she will make the first cut when the announcement is made May 31.
“The only way we could get the money back to the Treasury was to enter and win, so [Rep.] Pete Olson [R-Texas] joined me in our video. We pulled it together, we submitted it and we are good to go,” Blackburn explained in an interview with The Hill.
Even if they do win the contest, it was unclear how much they would receive due to the taxes that must be paid on winnings.
In the video, Blackburn and Olson direct people to a website to talk about “how these rules that are under consideration will adversely impact them,” Blackburn said.
The EPA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
According to a recent review by the Congressional Research Service, the EPA has doled out almost $30,000 in cash prizes since 2009.
At a hearing in late April, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to consider withdrawing the cash prize due to the massive deficits and debts incurred by the federal government.
Jackson told the panel that she “didn’t prepare to look at” the contest at the hearing but was “happy to take a look at it.”
“There are lots of things on our website that are designed to engage the public in the work that we do. And so, certainly — ” Jackson said when she was cut off by Scalise.
“Engaging is one thing, but giving away $2,500 in taxpayer dollars is different,” Scalise said.
Jackson repeated, “I’m happy to take a look at it, sir.”
But, according to Scalise’s office, Jackson has not responded in writing or over the phone to his concerns.
In March, the White House sent out a memorandum to the heads of agencies and departments, encouraging them to hold more contests as a means of saving money.
“The administration believes that prizes and challenges have a number of potential benefits,” wrote Deputy Director for Management Jeffrey Zients, of the Office of Management and Budget, in a March 8 memo, including that they “pay only for results.”
In the case of the EPA’s rulemaking contest, the agency effectively buys a product that has already been produced, as opposed to paying a communications firm to make a public service announcement.
Rick Weiss, communications director for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said he could not speak to the EPA video contests because he was not familiar with the details.
Weiss did say, however, that in general, contests can “spur private investment and save money by ensuring that tax dollars are spent only on successful ventures; they can also inspire new waves of innovation and attract participation by players who might not otherwise have tried to solve the problem at hand.”
Weiss explained the White House held an event on April 30 with nearly 200 federal employees representing 30 agencies and departments and a dozen private-sector individuals familiar with running contests to discuss the legal use of challenges and prizes.
That may not sit well with Blackburn, who promised that the EPA, at least, would have to answer for the contest.
“This is the kind of thing that our constituents are saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ It’s one of the signs that spending is out of control in Washington, D.C., and there just doesn’t seem to be a concept that the poor, beleaguered American taxpayer has just about had enough,” she said.