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.
Some panels are packed with industry representatives, ensuring that other viewpoints go unheard. Members are added or removed for what appear to be political reasons. Subcommittees – also known as subpanels or working groups – are created to discuss matters behind closed doors. Records are sealed.
"We may need to amend FACA to be more explicit about openness, about how people are selected [for panels]," said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash. Baird has studied the federal advisory process and spotted what he believes to be serious flaws: needless secrecy, the choosing of panelists based not on their expertise but on their loyalty to the administration or their views on issues such as abortion.