Federal Advisory Committees in the crosshairs

One thing about my job: every day I learn something new about the federal government. For instance, I’d never really thought much about federal advisory committees, known as FACs. Then came Friday’s White House executive order on “improving the utility” of federal advisory committees.

Who knew there were so many FACs that the Trump administration wants to limit them to 350. Obviously a lot of people knew. In fact the government is advised by no less than 1,063 committees. That means up to 713 are supposed to vanish if the executive order takes.

The whole effort to de-FAC will prove non-trivial, and not just because of the numbers. Most FACs are authorized in legislation. There’s also the Federal Advisory Committee Act itself, which underlies the whole complex. That means a given committee could have a powerful constituency. Try tangling with, say, an anti-smoking advisory committee and you could be in a religious war.

Agencies with one or two advisory committees are exempt from the executive order. The African Development Foundation is safe. It has only one advisory committee. Agencies with three or more have to cut them by at least a third. Two mitigating factors: The one-third goal may include FAC’s that already closed shop since January 20, 2017. (Does that date ring a bell?) And agencies may genuflect at the Office of Management and Budget for absolution from the letter of the executive order.

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Given the numbers of committees at several of the large departments, just reviewing them all will entail a lot of effort. Fifty four agencies have individuals dedicated to managing advisory boards. These people could be busy over the summer. They may want to get together to see where overlapping advisory committees might perhaps combine. For example, DoD has an Ocean Research Advisory Panel. Commerce has an Ocean Exploration Advisory Board.

Advisory committees dealing with drinking water, inland waterways, deserts and the atmosphere all exist. But NASA has them trumped with an Earth Science Advisory Committee.

Many FACs are connected with specific, ongoing programs or research initiatives. Some, like the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, came and went. It lasted for a single year ending in 2003.

Next rainy afternoon, check out the FACA Database, an online resource maintained by the General Services Administration. You’ll find that some FACs, like the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, have a sunset built in, in this case 2021.

But what about the Health and Human Services Department? It has, by my count, 269 advisory boards, mostly connected to the medical specialties encompassed by its National Institutes of Health. HHS has also terminated at least 97 FACs.

Interior is no slouch. It’s got 114 advisory boards, and has retired 124.

I expected the Defense Department to have a zillion advisory boards. But that mean, lean machine only has 47, and a terminated list numbering 73.

Who’s to say the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board should be sunsetted? Or the Manufactured Housing Consensus Committee?

How come the Interior Department has a Cold War Advisory Committee? (Answer: “The Committee reviews materials researched and written about Cold War military sites by a consultant (John Salmon) hired by the National Historic Landmarks Program (National Park Service, Department of the Interior). These materials include: an inventory of Cold War sites; a bibliography of Cold War history; and a historic context for a theme study.”) I don’t make this stuff up.

You can see, from the numbers of committees terminated, that the establishment road for advisory committees runs both ways. And some will clearly still have a good claim on existence. The National Institute of Standards and Technology administers the annual Baldrige Awards for manufacturers. So you wouldn’t close out the Judges Panel of the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award.

Personally, I’d vote to keep the Motorcyclist Advisory Council. I’d even  serve on that one, but they want engineers more than plain old riders.

Looking at the database, I can see the White House’s point in all of this. Like regulations, the accumulation of advisory boards should be reviewed from time to time. But the “market” for advisory committees already incorporates some dynamism. The executive order acknowledges that committees have been established under one of two authorities, one of which makes them optional. Those “eligibles” are in the cross hairs. But the administration is prepared to make legislative recommendations to Congress for terminating required-by-statue advisory committees.

I say, good luck to agencies on this one. They’ll need it.

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