Feds have no policy on posting meetings
While the federal government has extensive rules about how its regulatory agencies makes rules–with notices, publication schedules and comment periods–there is no government-wide policy for providing information to the public about meetings between executive branch officials and private interests. These contacts between regulators those seeking to influence them–refered to as ex parte meetings–can have a profound effect on the final shape of the rules that govern everything from disposing of trash to disclosing positions in complex derivatives. Yet there is no uniform requirement to make information about these meetings available to the public, let alone whether or not agencies must post such information online.
Despite the lack of a disclosure regimen, some government agencies make some information available online voluntarily. For example. after the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, several financial agencies promised to post meeting logs documenting meetings related to the law’s implementation. The Federal Communications Commission publishes records of ex parte meetings online. The Office of Information on Regulatory Affairs, part of the Office of Management and Budget, publishes details about meetings related to regulations under review. The White House also peridocially releases names of visitors online, albeit without their organizational affiliations or any information on the purpose of the meeting.
And that points to another problem. “The truth is there is no uniform rule about whether ex parte contacts have to be logged, and if so, in what form,” says David Vladeck, a law profressor with Georgetown University. “And it begs the more question of what is an ex parte communication.” Must agency staff keep public records of meetings only with senior agency officials during a rulemaking? Or should such records cover lower level staff as well? Should meetings be logged that are not connected to an official rulemaking? There is no single answer to these questions.
Consider the agencies that promised to post information on their Dodd-Frank meetings. Each agency made up its own rules and release formats for how to meet this promises, severely limiting the ability of researchers to track information across agencies.
Sunlight’s FOIA request for meeting records from FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) over a two year period was successful. However, the records came in the form of a stack of paper, as opposed to a searchable database or even electronic text files. To make sense of the records, Sunlight had to hand enter the relevant information from each meeting into a spreadsheet.
Repeated queries to the agency’s press office asking what the official agency policy is on making such documents public went unanswered, although the agency does appear to post some, but not all, of these memoranda as part of regulatory dockets. Sunlight has uploaded the documents we received on Document Cloud and created a searchable spreadsheet based on the documents, viewable <here.>
READ MORE ABOUT HOW OUTSIDE GROUPS HAVE BEEN LOBBYING FDA ON IMPLEMENTATION OF NEW SAFETY LAW.
SEE STORY AND SEARCHABLE SPREADSHEET AND MEETING MEMORANDA ON FOOD POLICY PROVIDED BY FDA IN RESPONSE TO SUNLIGHT’S FOIA.
SEE TIMELINE ON EXEMPTION SOUGHT IN FOOD SAFETY LAW.
Yet such records can reveal valuable information on the full picture of how lobbying works, with outside groups pleading their case before agency officials long after a law has been passed. Because of the severe limitations of lobbying disclosure laws–read more about that here–, meeting records provide an important source of information of who is influencing the executive branch. Despite their shortcomings, Sunlight has mined the Dodd-Frank meeting logs, as imperfect as they are, to show how big banks of dominated the financial regulation writing process.
Sunlight found the same pattern in the CSFAN meetings; absent the release of more accessible records in machine readable format, it’s impossible to say who is influencing other federal rulemaking.