Public relations agencies and lobbying firms use many tactics to influence public opinion and public officials. Ads, guest editorials, social media campaigns, blogs, websites, roadside billboards and even bus placards; no tool of modern advocacy is off the table. 

Judging from the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent pattern of using and funding these advocacy tools, without transparency, one might believe the agency is opening an office along New York’s famed Madison Avenue or Washington, D.C.’s K Street.

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It was recently reported by Capital Press, an agricultural publication based in Salem, Ore., that EPA grant funds were used to pay for billboards in Washington State advocating greater regulation of farmers. The billboards shouted, “Unregulated agriculture is putting our waterways at risk,” and directed viewers to an advocacy website blaming “unregulated agriculture” for a litany of environmental problems and urging them to “take action” through a form letter to state legislators seeking increased regulation of farm lands.

The billboard neglected to inform the public that it was funded through an EPA grant—your tax dollars and mine.

Dating back to colonial America, when Thomas Paine distributed his Common Sense pamphlet and other revolutionaries made the case for independence, public advocacy has always played a major role in empowering citizens to take action. But to protect citizens from undue influence by government, federal agencies are barred by law from activities such as “grassroots lobbying” and “covert propaganda”—both of which seem to be at play in the Washington billboards and other EPA advocacy actions.

The situation in Washington State is even more troubling in light of the fact that the Justice Department has repeatedly warned federal agencies such as the EPA to refrain from grassroots lobbying. Even a government intern should be able to identify a roadside billboard directing the public to a “take action” website as a grassroots advocacy tactic. The EPA’s move has not gone unnoticed. Senators Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time 'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack Republican senators now regret not doing more to contain Trump MORE (R-Okla.) and Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsSenate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes Window quickly closing for big coronavirus deal Trump's controversial Fed nominee stalled after Senate setback MORE (R-Kan.) have rightfully asked the EPA’s inspector general to investigate the matter. 

The incident in Washington State only adds to the EPA’s pattern of advocacy abuse to drum up support for its ill-conceived Waters of the U.S. rule. EPA has relentlessly campaigned with superficial tweets and blog posts aimed at influencing the public to advocate for the rule. That is exactly what the Anti-Lobbying Act is meant to prevent.

EPA’s inappropriate advocacy work on WOTUS was thoroughly documented last May in an investigative story published by the New York Times. EPA objected to the story, but the Times stood behind its work. The suspicions aired in the Times story were vindicated by the Government Accountability Office’s findings last December that EPA did, in fact, violate anti-lobbying restrictions and engaged in illegal “covert propaganda” in connection with the WOTUS rule. 

As an advocacy organization that works for America’s farm and ranch families, we use a range of advocacy tools from social media campaigns to published commentaries, billboards and others. That’s our job. We know there will be other advocacy organizations lined up with similar tools in opposition to our positions. That is healthy civil discourse—it’s how the system is supposed to work.

What we do not expect is that those opposition advocacy groups will be aided by collaboration and even cold, hard cash from our own government. By tradition and statute, government agencies are expected to be honest, objective brokers of public discourse and allow public opinion to influence government policy—not the other way around.

EPA’s actions, yet again, are coming into question. In the latest case in Washington State, EPA’s tactics are aimed at recruiting the public to lobby state lawmakers. This is an agency that truly respects no boundaries.

Thomas Paine had it right when he wrote in Common Sense that “…government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”

Whether the topic is state legislation or a federal proposal, it is clear to us that EPA is flouting the rules and must be held accountable. This appears to be an intolerable pattern of bad behavior, and top EPA leadership is ultimately responsible. Enforcement of limits within the law makes common sense, and we will continue our vigilance to ensure that government agencies play by the rules.


Zippy Duvall is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation