Today, the Revolving Door Project joined civil society partners to call on President Trump to rescind his Executive Order on Evaluating and Improving the Utility of Federal Advisory Committees. This recent Trump executive order calls for the elimination of one-third of existing Federal Advisory Committees (FAC) that are not statutorily mandated. The Order claims to offer a remedy for a problem — bloat in the FAC system — that does not exist. It does identify an actual problem for corporate America, though — more input from civil society can indeed dilute corporate influence in the workings of the executive branch. The order is, therefore, nothing more than the latest in this administration’s string of attacks on independent expertise and the public interest.
Government agencies have long sought outside expertise on specific policy matters. In 1972 the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) sought to standardize this process as well as ensure its transparency through publication guidelines and open meeting rules. The thousands of Federal Advisory Committees (FAC) that have been convened since that time have offered a means by which experts and stakeholders can weigh in on federal programs and policies.
This role has only grown in importance as corporate actors have come to dominate the regulatory process. FACs, by elevating scientific expertise and the perspectives of oft-marginalized stakeholders, offer a countervailing force to incessant corporate lobbying throughout the rulemaking and review processes.
Of course, FACs have not always functioned as designed. Administrations, including this one, have attempted to corrupt the advisory process by stacking FACs with industry lobbyists, cast as public interest stakeholders. FACs have also employed loopholes to avoid transparency requirements, thereby undermining their design. These are consequential subversions of FACs’ purpose and are deserving of attention. Along the campaign trail, many 2020 presidential candidates are pledging to wrest control of government out of the hands of corporate interests; pledging to strengthen and safeguard FACs once in office would be a tangible commitment in that direction.
Trump’s executive order, however, does nothing to address these real concerns that public interest advocates have raised over the years. Instead, it targets a largely made up problem: FAC bloat. Agencies regularly evaluate the continued utility of FACs that are not statutorily mandated and, at times, eliminate committees that are no longer necessary. Furthermore, even if you believed that these routine evaluations had not folded up all FACs that had outlived their usefulness, it is clear that a demand to cut one-third of FACs is baldly arbitrary and will inevitably result in the loss of valuable expertise.
This is not the first time that the Trump administration has used bureaucratic restructuring to attack scientific and civil servant expertise. For example, it is in the process of moving the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) out of Washington DC to Kansas City. It justified the move by citing lower costs and a desire to bring researchers closer to stakeholders. The practical, and plainly intended, effect, has been an exodus of experienced researchers administrators and delays in the release of important studies and the allocation of scientific funding. Trump’s latest executive order must be understood in the context of these other attacks.
In other words, this order is yet another thinly veiled effort to further tip the policymaking scales against the public interest in favor of corporate profit. Corporate lobbyists will continue to be able to have their perspectives heard, while experts and stakeholders will be shut out of the process even more severely than before. We join other groups in calling on Trump to rescind his executive order. We also, however, call on Congress to conduct oversight of this administration’s multi-front war on expertise and the public interest, including but not limited to this case.