Information, Secrecy and OMB

Information is the currency of democracy. Nobody understands this better than the omnipresent corporate lobbyists in Washington who work daily to keep control of crucial information and deny it to the citizenry.

Behind every scandal coming out of Washington recently, from the misuse of campaign contributions to the big grain deal, there was involved suppression of information which the public had a right to have.

But systematic secrecy by government-business collusion has a much longer history. One of the key legislative benchmarks for the modern wave of secrecy is the little known Federal Reports Act of 1942. The idea behind the Act was to spare mostly small businesses from having to fill out a mass of overlapping questionnaires by government agencies, especially during the war years. The Bureau of the Budget, attached to the White House, administered the law by requiring any agency questionnaires to be approved by the Bureau before being sent to industry or commerce.

As a result, specialized, often highly technical, surveys by such agencies as the Federal Power Commission or the Department of Agriculture, had to be funneled into this “Khyber Pass” for clearance. Since the Bureau of the Budget, now renamed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), had insufficient staff, it agreed with business interests that corporate advisory committees would be set up to review these questionnaires. In short, the companies decided pretty much what the government would ask them.

These advisory committees met in secret with the Budget Bureau staff and were successful in getting questions dropped or revised or in delaying the entire process.

Knowing of this screening process, many federal agencies simply gave up preparing such surveys or scaled their probing down. Or they would meekly endure fantastic delays in getting the Bureau’s approval.

All this has affected people around the country. If the government is supposed to conduct consumer and environmental and job safety programs, for example, it needs information fro the business community. For almost seven years in the Sixties, the federal water pollution control agency could not obtain final approval for a survey of company polluters around the country. It wanted to find out more precisely what, how much, and where they were dumping their deadly wastes so that it could make sound policy recommendations and do its job under the law. Industry representatives on these advisory committees to the Budget Bureau effectively delayed and thereby blocked the survey year after year.

Back in the early Sixties, the Federal Trade Commission wanted to survey large corporations about economic concentration and monopolies. Once again the Budget Bureau proved too formidable a hurdle.

The laws governing these agencies provide them with authority to obtain such information. But the Federal Reports Act has been used to pile on another clearance procedure by the White House under the secret guidance of the companies that are supposed to be regulated.

In the late Sixties, Senator Lee Metcalf (D., Montana) asked the Federal Power Commission to obtain more detailed information from electric utilities on the amounts they spend for political and lobbying activity. The FPC told him it would require permission from the Budget Bureau. The Senator began to look into the Bureau’s relationship with the business advisory committees. Out of this investigation have come a few changes by the Bureau — opening some meetings and providing written minutes.

But, more importantly, a law to open up and discipline these advisory committees throughout the government has passed the Senate and House. A House-Senate Conference is presently ironing out differences and although a weaker version will emerge than the Metcalf supporters would have liked, another step will be taken to achieve a more open government.

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