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Fixing Federal Advisory Committees

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Is the federal government getting biased advice from its advisory committees? Concerns about skewed advice and conflicts-of-interest prompted President Obama's September 2009 order banning lobbyists from executive-branch federal advisory committees and remedial legislation last Congress. No legislation was ultimately enacted, and the president's order barely scratched the surface of the issue.

A recent CRS report explains how advisory committees give advice to the government on a wide variety of issues and often help the government manage and solve complex or divisive issues. During FY 2010 there were 1,004 active committees with a total of 74,336 members, with total operating costs of around $400m. The committees are intended to gather and explore viewpoints from business, academic, governmental, and other interests.

Concerns about skewed advice led to the introduction of the Federal Advisory Committee Act Amendments of 2010, which passed the House unanimously but was not considered by the Senate. That bill was reintroduced this Congress by Rep. Cummings as part of the Transparency and Openness in Government Act, and appears to be co-sponsored by all the democratic members of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Committee Chairman Issa has already publicly stated his willingness to hold a hearing on that bill -- the part of it that concern Federal Advisory Committees -- although a date has not yet been announced.

The proposed legislation has a number of good ideas.

  • It significantly increases transparency about committee activities. As a general, 15 days prior to each meeting -- but no later than 48 hours in advance -- information about committee activities must be posted online, including how members are chosen, a list of current members, any member recusal agreements, a summary of how the committee makes decisions, notices of upcoming meetings, and a statement indicating when a meeting is closed to the public and the reason why. Transcripts or recordings of committee proceedings must be published online within 30 days of the meeting.
  • It extends all advisory committee disclosure rules to subcommittees (and privately contracted committees) with the same force that they apply to the full committee. This way, committee work won't be shunted to subcommittees in an effort to avoid disclosure requirements.
  • It allows the public to suggest who should serve as a committee member, so that the usual suspects aren't named to the board again and again.
  • It closes a loophole that allowed government officials serving on the board to avoid making ethics disclosures.
  • It requires people who regularly attend, participate, and otherwise act like committee members (except that they do not vote) be considered as committee members, and thus subject to committee disclosure rules.
  • It provides for oversight of the committees by the Comptroller General, who must publish annual reports on the committees.
  • It requires committee members to be selected without regard to partisan affiliation
These improvements go a long way towards making the advisory committee more open. We have additional suggestions.
  • All information made available on the Internet shall be done so by state-of-the-art methods and in open formats. Information published online should be in user-friendly formats that machines can automatically gather for analysis.
  • There should be a publicly-available online calendar that identifies all upcoming advisory committee meetings, and contains basic information about those meetings. The calendar should link to each committee's agenda.
  • All information made available to the public (whether on the internet or otherwise) should be at no cost. Committees should not be able to charge for transcripts or other documents.
  • Documents submitted to the Advisory Committee shall be made publicly available unless the Advisory Committee determines that those materials would disclose matters described in the FOIA exemptions listed in section 552(b) of title 5, United States Code. That determination should be appealable, and there should be a publicly-available summary of the contents at the time the materials are submitted.
  • In addition to listing the names of its committee members, each committee should also make available brief biographies of its members.
  • All members of each advisory committee shall file financial disclosure forms, which shall be made available on the committee website after redactions to remove personally identifiable information, such as social security numbers. This will help determine if there is a conflict of (financial) interest.
  • All members of the Advisory Committee should declare and publicly disclose conflicts of interest. These statements must be updated whenever new conflicts arise or on an annual basis, whichever is more frequent. These disclosures shall be placed on the Internet. There should be random reviews to ensure that all proper disclosures are filed.
  • The FACA main website should be updated and reworked. It's design is pretty bad.
  • The underlying data behind the FACA database should continue to be made publicly available in a bulk format. For example, here's the raw file of members through 2008.
Federal advisory committees are a major way that the government gets advice from members of the public, especially expert advice. We need to make sure that the advice is not tainted by hidden agendas and reflects the best analysis available.