Six weeks after President Barack Obama appointed a blue-ribbon panel to help him dig America out of its economic crisis, the board has yet to hold an official public meeting.
The White House initially said that the 16-member Presidential Economic Recovery Advisory Board, headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, would meet “every few weeks.” Last month, a spokesperson told POLITICO the group would meet monthly. And more recently, the White House said the high-powered board, set up to address what Obama has called the worst economic emergency since the Great Depression, would gather only about four times a year, with the next session due in “late spring.”
But comments from board members and Obama himself indicate that some members of the panel are meeting, in smaller gatherings that have not been announced or opened to the public. And that raises the question of whether an administration that prides itself on openness and transparency is in fact finding it more convenient to conduct public business in private.
Now, the administration finds itself in a Catch-22: It does not want to say that the president’s economic panel, announced amid much fanfare, is not meeting during the worst economic crisis in generations. But if it is meeting, where’s the announcement, the agenda, the minutes? In short, where’s the sunshine?
“If the president wants to talk to his advisory committee, it seems to me he ought to do that in the open,” said Sidney Shapiro, a law professor at Wake Forest University. “There ought to be accountability for private people who address the government. It seems to me it becomes even more important, not less important, when you have a presidential advisory committee.”
Asked about Obama’s right to solicit candid suggestions, Shapiro said, “If he wants private advice, he should pick up the telephone. He can call anybody he wants. If he wants to form a presidential advisory committee, they ought to meet in public.”
The White House said the advisory committee was, in fact, hard at work. “Members have been gathering information, conducting research, and analyzing relevant issues in preparation for the next full board meeting,” spokesperson Jen Psaki said. “Individual members are in regular contact with officials at Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and the White House….The President has also made calls to individuals.”
The White House did not respond to requests for a list of the subjects the subcommittees are to tackle or for the subgroups’ membership rosters. So far, none of the commission members’ meetings have been public or officially announced in accordance with the 1972 federal law which governs such groups, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA.
That law has spawned a series of legal battles over the years, including fights over access to the Grace Commission on government waste set up by President Ronald Reagan, First Lady Hillary Clinton’s health care task force, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s task force on energy policy. Those closed-door panels sparked public outrage – and serious political blowback — that helped fuel Obama’s vows for more open government.
While current law is murky, federal regulations do call for subcommittee meetings to be open and announced in advance when those task forces are giving advice or recommendations directly to a federal agency or officer, such as the president.
The use of subcommittees to do the advisory board’s work in private could put the panel on a collision course with a congressional panel that is advancing legislation that would require such meetings to take place in public with advance notice.
On March 10, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 16 to 1 in favor of a bill which would close what some call a loophole in federal law allowing subcommittees to met privately even when the advisory panel which set them up is required to meet in public.
A law professor who has brought suits in the past to open advisory committee meetings said the issue of forcing open meetings with the chief executive is a thorny one.
“I would say if the president wants to meet people off the record, even an advisory committee, it does raise problematic separation-of-powers issues” for Congress to require the meeting to be open, David Vladeck of Georgetown said. He said Congress’s ability to dictate how any president gets advice is limited by the Constitution.
Vladeck said he hopes that the intent of holding subgroup meetings out of the public eye is not to frustrate the public’s right to access to the broader committee’s work. “At the end of the day, the spirit of FACA would be violated if that were the game plan going in,” he said.
The meeting earlier this month illustrates how blurred the lines can get guiding when a meeting is one that should be open.
On March 13, seven members of the economic panel met with President Obama in a closed-door session at the White House just before a photo-op Obama held with Volcker. The group included Volcker, former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William Donaldson, Yale investment chief David Swensen, and developer and Hyatt Hotel heir Penny Pritzker. No private citizens who don’t sit on the panel attended.
“Well, listen, I just had a meeting with Paul Volcker and our business advisory board to discuss a wide range of issues, but with some particular focus on the financial markets,” Obama said.
But Psaki said the session “was not a PERAB meeting---it was a small group of business leaders meeting with the president.”
One panel member not at that gathering, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka, told POLITICO that at an organizing session before the formal announcement in February “nine or ten subject-matter subgroups” were set up.
“One is walking through job growth and investments. Another is talking about financial regulation. Another is looking at trade policy,” Trumka said.
The union leader said the process will broaden the advice Obama receives. “People are looking at a lot of different sectors they’re familiar with. You get to talk directly to the president with your economic ideas without being filtered through any of his cabinet or staff,” Trumka said.
Asked if the access will be valuable for the AFL-CIO, Trumka said, “I think it’s important for the country and for the economy.”
Obama announced the economic advisory board back in November, during the transition. It was formally established on February 6 in an executive order signed by Obama at a ceremony in the White House’s East Room.
“I created this board to enlist voices to come from beyond the Washington echo chamber, to ensure that no stone is unturned as we work to put people back to work and get our economy moving,” the president said. “We will meet regularly so that I can hear different ideas and sharpen my own and seek counsel that is candid and informed by the wider world.”
Other members of the panel include General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, union leader Anna Burger and Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr. Most board members did not respond to questions about its activities. One said she was unaware that some of her colleagues met with Obama earlier this month.