Federal Advisory Committees
In pursuing rulemakings and drafting regulations, decision makers rely on sound advice and the highest levels of expertise available to them. While agencies are staffed with scientists and analysts, in some cases, agencies may not have the necessary resources or expertise when developing rules. In other cases, agencies may wish to seek out the advice of experts outside of government. Federal advisory committees serve in these capacities.
A 2004 Government Accountability Office report describes the importance of federal advisory committees:
Generally composed of individuals from outside of the federal government, federal advisory committees play an important role in the development of public policy and government regulations by providing advice to policymakers on a wide array of issues.
The report goes on to describe the general nature of advisory committee work as "performing peer reviews of scientific research; developing recommendations on specific policy decisions; identifying longrange issues facing the nation; and evaluating grant proposals, among other functions." The ultimate goal of advisory committees is to "enhance the quality and credibility of federal decision making."
History of Federal Advisory Committees and FACA
The idea of consulting outside experts for policy advice was conceived in America's early days. As the federal government evolved, so too did these panels. Standing committees - those which exist indefinitely and address an ongoing issue - began to form, and federal agencies began to rely more and more on their expertise and advice.
By the 1970s, upwards of 5,000 committees existed. Many of these committees operated without congressional authorization or oversight. Subsequently, Congress passed the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which took effect in January 1973.
With FACA, Congress attempted to improve the accountability, responsiveness and usefulness of federal advisory committees in a number of ways. Some of the most important provisions of FACA require:
- agencies to establish uniform guidelines for advisory committees;
- advisory committees to develop and publish a charter before commencing;
- agencies to provide support services to advisory committees and designate an agency employee to chair or attend each meeting.
FACA also includes important public access and participation provisions. FACA requires:
- advisory committee meetings to be open to the public with limited exceptions;
- advisory committees to accept the statements, written or oral, of the public;
- advisory committees or agencies to make available to the public all materials used or produced by advisory committees.
FACA also attempts to preserve the independence and impartiality of statutorily mandated advisory committees. Legislation creating a federal advisory committee must:
- "require the membership of the advisory committee to be fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented," and
- "contain appropriate provisions to assure that the advice and recommendations of the advisory committee will not be inappropriately influenced by the appointing authority or by any special interest."
FACA assigns to the General Services Administration (GSA) the responsibility of carrying out the provisions of the law. GSA maintains a database of federal advisory committee statistics and activities. The database is available at fido.gov/facadatabase.
FACA succeeded in substantially reducing the number of federal advisory committees and in increasing federal oversight of those committees. Nonetheless, in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12838, which called for federal agencies to reduce by one-third the number of those advisory committees not statutorily mandated. Federal agencies succeeded in doing so, and by the end of FY 1998, the number of federal advisory committees fell to its lowest level (892) in decades.
During the administration of George W. Bush, the number of federal advisory committees has climbed slightly. The role of advisory committees in the Bush administration has been marred by criticism that committees are in some cases being filled with industry representatives rather than scientific and technical experts.
The method for choosing members of federal advisory committees varies among agencies. The Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at the George Washington University describes the process:
Nominations for advisory committee membership do not follow a standard process or use a specific, consistent policy across agencies and committees. Committee membership may be appointed "by the President; by the Secretary, Administrator, or Director of a federal agency; or by other senior executive staff" (NAS 2004). Appointment mechanisms differ, for example, in terms of the requirements for disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. Some committee appointment processes are transparent (e.g., the EPA Science Advisory Board publishes information on its website regarding advisory committee selection methods and criteria), while other processes are much less explicit. Last, staff involved with advisory committee nominations and operations do not have guidelines for ensuring that questions asked of candidates are appropriate.
Members of federal advisory committees may be government or non-government employees. They may also be paid or unpaid. Conflicts of interest are to be avoided, but agencies differ in applying conflicts of interest policies on committees.
As of June 2007, there were 914 active federal advisory committees and two inactive committees. Of these, the vast majority (899) were continuing committees while only 17 were ad hoc committees. The General Services Administration classifies committees by subject in the following way (number of committees):
National policy/issue (124);
Grant review (92);
Grant review special emphasis panel (27);
Regulatory negotiation (2).
For FY 2006, federal advisory committees produced a total of 991 reports. Committees held a total of 7,101 meetings, 2,299 of which were open, 4,528 closed, and 274 partially closed. In FY 2006, federal advisory committees employed 67,346 members and cost the federal government more than $383 million in personnel, travel and support expenses.