Congress Authorizes Secret Meetings of Academy of Science
In a manner all too typical of DC, Congress passed a number of measures in its hurry to recess in November. Many bills would never have survived if they had been exposed to the light of day, which is exactly why they were considered during the final hours of maximum confusion.
On the last Sunday of Congress (Nov. 9), Rep. Steve Horn (R-CA) introduced HR 2977 to exempt the National Academies of Science, and National Research Council (NRC) from public scrutiny.
The bill gives these organizations an exemption to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). FACA is best known as the hurdle which tripped up Hillary Clintons health care task force. It is designed to prevent government- sanctioned advisory panels (which include people from outside the government) from conducting their business in secret. It is a reasonable prohibition which everybody- except the National Academies of Science and their NRC workhorse - has had to live with.
For more than 20 years, the National Academies of Science and NRC have operated under the assumption that FACA did not apply to them. Your money pays their bills, but the National Academies doesnt think you should have a right to find out what they do. Recent Federal court cases have ruled that the anti-secrecy laws do apply and the Supreme Court has refused to take up their appeal. So these powerful advisory groups turned to their friends in Congress to ram through a special exemption.
In an end-of-session, after-midnight voice vote, Rep. Horn pushed HR 2977 through in less than 90 hours. The House vote was on Monday at 2 am and the Senate on Wednesday in the wee hours. If you ever wanted an example of why the League of Private Property Voters monitors Congress and pushes for recorded votes, this stealth operation is the perfect example. There is no way to make the Members of Congress individually responsible for HR 2977.
Here is how it works. Congress faces a tough issue. They request the National Academies and the NRC to review the issue. These organizations are run by a close clique of powerful scientists, some of whom have been politically co-opted. They then invite friendly scientists in for peer review. The result is sometimes a preordained goal which may take away your rights. The "scientists" then pass their report back to Congress which often uses this pseudo science to pass laws or recommend new regulations.
If the National Academies were required to follow FACA, they would be required to hold open meetings, provide free access to documents and have a government official present at meetings sanctioned by the government for the development of reports, research and to be held accountable. With this exemption, information about their meetings, including who attends and participates, is not public record.
Arguments that they are purely scientific, non-profit and publicly-funded do not provide a reasonable basis for selective application of a law. The fact that these entities are sufficiently self-interested to lobby for self-serving legislation and have the political power to get their own bills passed in the dark of night demonstrates that they are perhaps, in practice, exactly the kind of entity this law was designed to check.
We believe every Congressman and Senator should be asked where he or she was when HR 2977 passed. They let it happen by inaction. That is not the way Congress should conduct its business. Congress should use recorded votes on all potentially controversial issues. It should hold publicized hearings and provide time for careful deliberation. HR 2977 would never have become law in an open process.