Partial Secrecy

A few days before Christmas, James E. Mack must have felt he was earning his salary as managing director of the Washington-based Peanut Butter Manufacturers and Nut Salters Association (PBMNSA). He had just mailed a highly confidential draft report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, on the Peanut Price Support Program to the Association’s corporate members. If such members as the Frito-Lay, Standard Brands, General Foods and Procter and Gamble companies didn’t like the GAO’s analysis of this taxpayers’ subsidy program, they could start the political pressures building on selected members of Congress whose opinions the GAO must take seriously.

In the meantime, back at the GAO’s offices, officials began to investigate how the draft report was leaked. The report was given to the Department of Agriculture which in turn gave it to its National Peanut Advisory Committee. Two companies on the Advisory Committee are also on the Board of Directors of the PBMNSA. It was a cinch to fall into the hands of Mr. Mack.

This is one of many examples of industry advisory committees to government agencies operating as early conduits to companies about possible policy changes or enforcement moves. There are hundreds of industry and other special interest dominated advisory committees throughout the federal government. Their taxpayer-paid staffs number over 3,000 persons. The interest groups represented on these committees have preferential access to the councils of government and are consulted to an extent that often they make government policy. Former Congressman John Monagan (D., Conn.) called them “the fifth arm of the government.” He observed that “an invitation to advise can by subtle steps confer the power to regulate and legislate.”

Agribusiness companies sit on Department of Agriculture advisory committees; insurance companies and banks sat on the Civil Aeronautics Board’s financial advisory committee before it was exposed and disbanded; corporate polluters dominate the National Industrial Pollution Control Council; and 16 industry advisory committees to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget have strongly determined the kinds of surveys and questionnaires that regulatory agencies want to send to these very industries. For years, the meetings of these committees had been closed to the public. After consumer protests, meetings are finally public but the decisions are now made beforehand in secret.
A new law, effective January 5, 1973, is supposed to open up to the public more of these advisory committee meetings, with more detailed minutes or transcripts made available for citizens. The law has loopholes, however, which leave much of its practical effect in the hands of presidential and departmental discretion.

Nor does this new legislation resolve the dilemma which the GAO has gotten itself into with its policy of letting certain parties look at its draft investigative reports. Nearly ten years ago the GAO’s reports were more specific and hardhitting. Then Rep. Chet Holifield led a crackdown, inspired by the defense industries, to stop the GAO from including specific criticisms of companies and their executives in its reports to the Congress. In the last several years, GAO has become inhibited and, in a sense, cowed. It now permits industry groups or companies to look at confidential draft reports if they are named in them or if legislative changes are recommended or if company records are reviewed.

These standards can be interpreted in an unfair manner. For example, the GAO could have shown Lockheed its draft investigative report but not to Henry Durham, a former Lockheed production supervisor whose charges led to the GAO’s investigation. If the company’s reputation was on the line, so too was Mr. Durham’s. Similarly, the GAO completed a preliminary report on the Department of Transportation’s auto safety enforcement program and gave it to the auto companies for review. No auto safety consumer groups were permitted similar access. Finally, because the GAO routinely makes its reports available in preliminary form to the agencies whose programs it is analyzing, it i very difficult to keep the reports out of the hands of interested companies whose Washington representatives are close to agency employees.

In recognition of these problems, the GAO’s chief, Elmer B. Staats, says his agency is “in the process of reviewing our policy with respect to making draft reports available to outside groups for comment.” It is hoped that he will either close the back door or open it up to equal review by consumer, taxpayer and other public interest groups.

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