Drilling Down on the Attempted Takedown of the Government’s Advisory Committees

July 15, 2019 | 4:00 pm
Photo: Cory Doctorow/Flickr
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

The House Science committee will be holding a hearing tomorrow to talk about the status of the government’s advisory committees, which is extremely timely considering the Trump administration is attempting to get rid of them altogether.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a brand new report on the subject and will be testifying about the details of its study on how EPA’s advisory committees have been faring under the Trump administration. Spoiler alert: EPA has been skirting its own protocols to alter membership on SAB and CASAC. GAO found that in addition to ignoring staff recommendations and making appointment decisions in a black box, EPA failed to ensure that all committee members were in compliance with federal ethics rules. This assessment tracks closely with findings from our 2018 report looking at the first year of the Trump administration, which found many advisory committees were being disbanded, neglected, or the composition altered dramatically after the start of President Trump’s first term. While it covers a few discrete process issues, the GAO report fails to go into the implications of the agency’s directive to ban EPA-funded scientists from serving on its advisory committees or how its dissolution of subcommittees, like CASAC’s particulate matter panel, has meant the inability of the agency to do its statutorily mandated work.

The stakes have gotten a lot higher now that, according to the Executive Order issued last month, all federal agencies (with some exceptions) will have to select one-third of their advisory committees to cut by the end of September. I’ve already explained why this order is absurd, but if agencies do go through with this exercise, here are some of the impacts we foresee.

Agencies will have to make impossible choices

Using the government’s public data on advisory committees, we took a look at all of the advisory committees across the government and exempted those that are not likely to be covered by the order, including committees that are formed by presidential order or statutorily required, formed by independent regulatory agencies, those at agencies with fewer than three committees, those that are merit-based or grant review committees, and those that deal with product safety (which we applied to drugs, food, and other consumer products). Once those exemptions were applied, we ended up with 311 committees that are at risk of being cut, 88 of which are scientific  and technical advisory committees. Those facing the biggest cuts are the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Commerce, Department of the Interior, and Department of Defense.

According to a 2016 Congressional Research Service analysis, agency-authorized committees and national policy issue advisory boards are more likely than the other committees to have a higher rate of recommendation implementation. The same is true for those advisory committees that are authorized by agency authority, over statutory authority. It’s not a coincidence that the most influential advisory committees are those that are the first to feel the heat from this administration. It’s abundantly clear that President Trump doesn’t want smart people and facts informing government decisionmaking.

Not only will axing committees hurt federal agencies’ ability to protect public health and the environment, but it will be forcing agencies like the Department of Homeland Security cut out expert advice on issues that help keep our entire country safe from safety threats. The department of homeland security has 6 advisory committees that are candidates for being cut which means that two will need to be removed. That means sacrificing two of the following important advisory threads: preparing and responding to disruptions that can damage infrastructure (from natural disasters to cyber risks), network resilience and telecommunications integrity for disaster response, general homeland security advice (which includes recommendations on how to best care for individuals in custody at the U.S. border), scientific and technical advice to strengthen U.S. security and resiliency, and the safety of water transportation of large amounts of hazardous materials. All of these DHS committees met in 2019 and help the agency meet its mission so why must any of them be removed? Why would we forego more expert input on such important issues when there’s no persuasive reason to?

The same impossible choices exist at every agency. There are scores of committees at risk that provide the government with vital advice. Here are just a few:

  • At the Department of Commerce, the Census Scientific Advisory Committee has met to advise the Secretary of Commerce on issues related to the census since 1994. Among committee members are statisticians, demographers, computer scientists, economists, and policy experts who provide scientific expertise to the secretary on the proper deployment of the census, including recently recommending that the bureau has “continued vigilance about all potential sources of reduced quality in population counts and household characterizations” that would occur as a result of the notorious attempt to include a citizenship question.
  • The EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee is a policy advisory committee formed in 1997 which advises the agency on regulations related to children’s health. Over the years its recommendations have been incredibly consequential resulting in administrators conducting specific studies on environmental exposures of children, revising risk assessment procedures for children working in agriculture, and adopting standardized levels for indoor asthma allergens for childcare environments and federally funded homes. Its most recent agenda in May 2019 took on issues ranging from PFAS, TSCA implementation, to the federal lead action plan. We should all take great comfort in knowing that there’s a group of qualified experts making sure that the EPA is adequately considering children’s health as it designs policies that stand to impact generations to come.
  • The Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Infant Mortality at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) helps to inform and influence national policies that may impact infant mortality and health outcomes from women, children, and families. As our infant mortality rate continues to be the highest of any wealthy country and racial disparities in mortality continue to increase, the need for experts informing the Secretary’s decisions related to maternal health care and the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid for the health of women and infants is vital. But then again, so are all of the HHS’ committees dedicated to public health.

For this analysis, we only looked at discretionary committees (established by agencies and former presidents) because they will be considered in the first wave of cuts, but President Trump’s executive order also threatens those established by statute, so the threat to our government’s external advice infrastructure is gigantic. The order sets a ceiling of 350 total advisory committees across the government, but there’s every indication that this administration wouldn’t stop until it has eliminated the entire federal advisory committee network. With an administration that doesn’t even listen to its own experts and no network of external advisors to check its work, our government will be flying blind and we’ll all suffer the consequences. I’m looking forward to the hearing on this critical topic tomorrow and want to encourage Congress to continue oversight on this administration’s efforts to dismantle its own expert advisory system. This valuable resource, and the tens of thousands of experts who are a part of it, needs to be protected to ensure informed decisions with the public’s best interest in mind.