In Other News #2: “Informal” Lobbying and Reduced Transparency to Open the Country?

The world is focused on COVID19, as it should be. However, while you, your family, and the national media are understandably paying attention to people’s health and the government’s response to the pandemic, many are using this opportunity to appeal to politicians to change or create regulations to benefit their industries. We want to highlight some of these efforts that aren’t getting the attention they deserve because we should all still be aware of what is happening behind closed doors when the world is focused on other pressing things.

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On Tuesday, April 14, President Trump announced his effort to “open up” the country after–or perhaps during, it wasn’t exactly clear–the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic. The meat of this effort seemed to be a group of more than 200 corporations that the President said would become “informal advisors” to the federal government as part of the Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups.

Source: Politico

But Politico reports that the calls the White House has had with these advisors have been kept private, and have been conducted without the typical documentation or reporting that advisory committee communications are generally required to have.

“Yet the White House kept the meetings private. By contending that the 200-plus business leaders it is talking to are not developing any consensus recommendations — just offering their opinions — the effort might not have to comply with a core transparency statute, the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The law requires formal outside advisory committees to hold open meetings and issue public reports. Notably, the White House also avoided the term “committee” in its announcement.”

However, the understanding conveyed to some of the key corporate members may belie this public face. Tesla’s Elon Musk, a member of the manufacturing initiative, tweeted “Will seek advisory council consensus & present to President.”

The Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, was created in 1972 to create regulations for exactly this purpose, to make sure there’s transparency and limit hidden dealing when the government seeks advice from industries. Especially when these industries are poised to make significant profits.

Any reduction in transparency should worry the public at the best of times.  But during this fraught moment in history, when we are each paying less attention to federal dealings, this obscurity is particularly worrying.

Reopening the economy in the wake of this pandemic is going to be difficult. But like in all crises, there are opportunities for significant profit for those that are strategically poised with information and infrastructure before it happens. Without proper transparency, how do we know what kind of information and deals are being handed out to these informal advisors during closed-door governmental communications?

Is it fair to mom and pop restaurants and small chains that YUM brands (owner of KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and others) has advanced knowledge of government actions and access to government assistance programs?

Should Amazon get a bigger say in how America starts shopping again than the local stores that have been shuttered and forced to lay off their retail staff?

Politico does hazard that, “The 220-person size of the council does contribute to a degree of informal transparency, making it a bit hard for the White House to prevent members of the groups from sharing accounts of what they told the president, or vice versa.”

However, should the public really rely on leaks and selective snippets when this is of national interest to everyone? Shouldn’t the deliberations, recommendations, and negotiations that go into reopening our nation be as transparent and accessible to all Americans as possible?

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Here is the White House’s List the companies that will be engaged in conversations as part of the Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-announces-great-american-economic-revival-industry-groups/

Amit Thakkar

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