Shadow Government


Last week, The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released The Shadow Government, another of their eye-popping reports that they are so known for. The report is the result of an investigation of federal advisory committees, the secret, multi-layered and unaccountable bureaucracy that influences much of the federal government with precious little oversight and largely no record of their activities. There are over 900 committees, boards, commissions, councils and panels that advise the various agencies of the Executive Branch and the White House, meant to offer government expert opinions on various topics.

The CPI investigation found:

– committees packed with industry representatives;

– members are added or removed for political reasons;

– subcommittees and working groups are created allowing decisions to be made behind closed doors; and

– records are sealed if they exist at all.

CPI has a cool chart showing some of the real-life impacts of this opaque bureaucracy.

Many of these issues were the reason that Congress passed the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 (FACA). They wanted to discourage the influence of "locker-room discussion" on agency decisions that was so common, as Wikipedia puts it. FACA requires:

– members of the advisory committees be appointed without considering political affiliation;

– agencies have committee members file conflict of interest disclosures; and

– committees disclose more of their activities.

The reform worked for a while, but the old problems have returned with a vengeance. Federal court decisions, congressional action and inaction, and Bush Administration policies have fostered the weakening of FACA.

U.S. Reps. Henry Waxman, chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) are sponsoring the Federal Advisory Committee Act Amendments of 2008 (H.R. 5687), which is meant to improve balance, transparency and independence. In April, Waxman’s committee passed the bill.

Veteran journalist Jim Morris was the investigation’s project manager. And I am happy to report he has now joined the Sunlight Foundation as our program director. Jim modestly says that he and his team only scratched the surface with their report and invites other journalists and citizen investigators to join in. CPI has a online tutorial on how to use the FACA Database.