- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Despite President Obama’s pledge to conduct the most open administration in history, the number of closed-door meetings by federal advisory committees is on the rise in his second term.

A new report by the Congressional Research Service found that 71 percent of all agency committee meetings were closed to the public in fiscal 2013 and 2014. The number of closed meetings has risen about 10 percent since fiscal 2012, and the percentage is higher than the average of 67.6 percent of meetings that were closed during the second term of Republican George W. Bush.

CRS reviewed data provided by federal agencies under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. There are roughly 70,000 outside experts, peer-review consultants, academics and federal employees who serve on the panels in any given year; the total cost to taxpayers was $334.5 million in 2014 to operate 825 committees.

The report said the reasons for holding closed meetings range from allowing an expert to give an honest assessment of which academic studies are most qualified to receive a federal grant without fear of retaliation, to protecting proprietary information in grant applications.

Advisory committees are allowed to hold closed meetings but, by law, a committee’s designated federal officer must obtain prior approval from either the agency head or the General Services Administration’s “committee management secretariat” to hold a closed meeting.

The committees gather information to provide advice to the president and federal agencies on a wide range of policy issues. The Department of Health and Human Services leads all agencies with 264 advisory committees. The Commission on Civil Rights has 51 committees, while the sprawling Department of Homeland Security has a relatively low total of 27 advisory panels.

The total cost to run the advisory committees has fallen from its high point of $450 million in 2006 under Mr. Bush, with the meetings increasingly being held via webcast or videoconference.

While the overall number of committee meetings are rising, 164 active advisory committees held no meetings at all in fiscal 2014.

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