The Center for Public Integrity has just released a new report probing the federal government's 900 advisory panels. Though little-known, the panels often have significant influence over policy issues at federal agencies, and many of them are comprised almost entirely of industry representatives:
They counsel the Department of Defense on terrorism, help the National Institutes of Health dispense billions of dollars in grants and vet proposed food safety rules for the Department of Agriculture. They weigh in on human rights, climate change, Medicare, Social Security, sexual assault in the military, prescription drugs, national parks, child abuse and countless other subjects.
At least 900 committees, boards, commissions, councils and panels give advice to federal agencies and the White House, forming a vast but largely unnoticed network that influences policy throughout the government. Collectively these bodies have some 67,000 members, meet more than 7,000 times a year and spend almost $400 million annually.
Many do commendable work, offering expert opinions to the executive branch on topics both broad and arcane. There is evidence, however, that the open, even-handed system envisioned by Congress when it passed the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 (FACA) has mutated into something less desirable.
One such panel, the Defense Trade Advisory Group, advises the State Department on U.S. weapons exportation and is primarily staffed by manufacturers, suppliers, lobbyists, and consultants associated with the weapons industry. DTAG has successfully lobbied the U.S. government to expand the number of countries to which members of the group can sell weapons:
In the mid-1990s, for example, it recommended that the U.S. government lift a ban on sales of advanced weaponry to Latin America; in 1997, after intense industry lobbying outside of DTAG, the restrictions were indeed lifted. More recently, the group has recommended ways to soften a department proposal that would compel foreign brokers who work for American defense companies to register with State-a requirement, the industry argues, that puts it at a disadvantage to foreign competitors. Department officials counter that more vetting is necessary. They cite some recent cases to illustrate their point, such as a consultant in Asia who worked for a large U.S. defense company while he was also an agent for the Chinese government, and a broker in Latin America who had multiple felonies.
Scientists and advocates at other panels have resigned from some of these committees out of frustration:
In August 2007, for example, the EPA disbanded the National Pollution Prevention and Toxics Advisory Committee, created in 2002 to give the agency a cross section of input on issues such as nanotechnology and lead poisoning. After a promising start, the committee fell dormant after three scientists - all environmental advocates - resigned in protest in October 2006.
The scientists complained that the group had been stymied by representatives of the chemical industry, who resisted efforts to reach consensus on matters of chemical policy, and that the EPA had not done enough to resolve the conflicts. "It was basically an us-against-them dynamic, which didn't allow real progress forward," said one of those who quit, Joel Tickner, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell's School of Health & Environment. In his letter announcing the committee's breakup, EPA Assistant Administrator James Gulliford thanked the remaining members for their service and wrote that he had decided to "utilize a range of approaches to obtain stakeholder input, formal and informal, instead of reconstituting the [committee]."
Meanwhile, Congress may be taking action to increase oversight of these committees:
After years of paying scant attention to FACA abuses - imbalances on committees, unwarranted secrecy, agency interference - Congress is considering amendments to the 36-year-old law. Legislation sponsored by Waxman and another Democrat, William Lacy Clay of Missouri, would, in Clay's words, "improve balance, transparency and independence" among panels. The proposed amendments would require that committee appointments be made without regard to political affiliation and would strengthen conflict-of-interest disclosure rules for panelists. They also would clamp down on efforts to circumvent FACA and avoid public disclosure.
Jim Morris, the project manager for Shadow Government and a program director at the Sunlight Foundation, says that there is much more to be explored: "The FACA database is a gold mine for anyone who cares about the behind-the-scenes workings of federal advisory committees, some of which wield a great deal of influence. Unfortunately, almost no one knows about it. We used it to identify panels, like the National Coal Council, which are heavily tilted toward industry, in violation of the spirit - if not the letter -- of the law. I wish we'd had more time to work with it, and would encourage journalists to root around in it, looking for committees that appear to be packed with representatives of certain industries or certain ideologies," wrote Morris in an e-mail to ProPublica.
Taking Morris' advice, we began poking around the FACA database, the goverment's (not too user-friendly) site that lets you find details about all the panels. The National Coal Council, mentioned by Morris and featured in the Center's interactive tutorial, immediately grabbed our attention. That council advises the Department of Energy on coal policy. And it is made up almost exclusively of representives of the coal industry. Out of the 101 members that have served the panel since 2000, only one is an environmental advocate. Meanwhile, the FACA database says that 80% of the coal council's recommendations have been implemented by the Department of Energy.
We are now in the process of obtaining the coal council's recommendations to the Department of Energy and the NCC's meeting transcripts.
In the meantime, take a look at the FACA database yourself. (Use the Center's helpful tutorial to get started.) If you find something of interest, post it on our site or make a suggestion for us to dig into.
For the purpose of full disclosure, please note that I worked for the Center for Public Integrity for two and a half years before coming to ProPublica, but I did not work on the Shadow Government project.