We’re a little late in reporting this, but on July 26, the House passed a bill to improve the transparency and accountability of federal advisory committees. Among other things, the bill, H.R. 1320, would:
- Ban agencies from applying “political litmus tests” when selecting committee members;
- Require agencies to designate members as either representatives of a particular viewpoint or experts consulted to provide unconflicted scientific or technical advice;
- Apply stricter conflict of interest and disclosure requirements to members designated as experts;
- Require agencies to post on their websites information about committees and committee meetings, including transcripts and audio or video recordings of meetings; and
- Provide the public with an opportunity to comment on potential committee members before they are selected.
Congress, presidents, and agency heads charter advisory committees for a number of reasons. Sometimes, advisory committees are to supplement an agency’s expertise, like when the EPA asks outside scientists to assess the effects of a pollutant on human health. Other times, they are to attain practical advice and opinions from stakeholders, like when the Department of the Interior consults with farmers, environmental groups, and/or Native American tribes on land planning issues.
In recent years, advisory committees have tended to make headlines not for the sage wisdom they provide but for the controversies they stoke when conflicts of interest or accusations of bias arise. H.R. 1320 won’t eliminate these issues, but it should limit them. At the very least, it will give the public a clearer look into the formation and proceedings of advisory committees and provide citizens and advocates with the tools to hold accountable both committees and the agencies that manage them.
The bill passed with bipartisan support; 27 Republicans joined 223 Democrats in voting “yea.” The bill now joins the queue of items awaiting action in the Senate, a.k.a. the Island of Misfit Bills. A similar bill passed the House in June 2008, during the 110th Congress, only to die in the Senate.