Fairly Balanced: The Politics of Representation on Government Advisory Committees

By Brown, Mark B. | Political Research Quarterly, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Fairly Balanced: The Politics of Representation on Government Advisory Committees


Brown, Mark B., Political Research Quarterly


The United States Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) requires advisory committees to be "fairly balanced." By examining legislative, judicial, and administrative interpretations of FACA's balance requirement, this article identifies a prevailing double standard: public officials assess committee members classified as experts in terms of their professional competence, while they assess those classified as representatives in terms of their political interests. Although the prevailing approach seeks to prevent the politicization of expert advice, it actually promotes it. Advisory committee balance is better understood, this article suggests, in terms of social and professional perspectives. This approach avoids both naively apolitical and destructively partisan conceptions of advisory committee balance. It also suggests a promising way to think about the role of technical expertise in public deliberation.

Keywords: Federal Advisory Committee Act; political representation; deliberative democracy; expertise

Government advisory committees are usually one of the least noticed elements of American politics, but they have come under intense scrutiny in the wake of their misuse by the administration of President George W. Bush. Numerous reports have documented instances in which Bush administration officials have altered or suppressed research findings that conflict with administration policy, vetted nominees to advisory committees to ensure they support the president, and replaced committee members with people more amenable to the administration (United States House of Representatives 2003; Union of Concerned Scientists 2004; Mooney 2005). These charges are often presented as evidence of the "politicization" of science - or as the editor of the prestigious journal Science put it, "an epidemic of politics" (Kennedy 2003). Although the Bush administration's distortion and suppression of science advice has had disastrous consequences, the charge of "politicization" mistakenly suggests the possibility of science advice entirely free of politics. Numerous studies have shown how science advice inevitably combines technical and political considerations (e.g., Jasanoff 1990; Sarewitz 2004; Pielke 2007). Sociotechnical problems today are complex, multifaceted, and fraught with both political and scientific uncertainties. As a result, different scientific disciplines and methodologies generate different assessments, often with conflicting political implications. This means that, in many cases, the composition of government advisory committees is unavoidably political.

Moreover, those charging the Bush administration with politicizing science rarely reveal or defend their own value commitments and political interests, instead presenting themselves as defenders of pure science - as though global warming, sex education, or teaching evolution in public schools have remained controversial because of a lack of independent expertise (Sarewitz 2006; Pielke 2007). Issues like these remain controversial, not because science has been politicized but because they involve ongoing conflicts over basic values and interests. Although effectively addressing such issues depends in part on science, efforts to elim- inate politics from science advice inevitably lead to conflicts over what is "political," thus displacing the political conflict onto science. Science becomes a proxy battleground for politics. In this respect, those calling for science advice free of politics are as guilty of politicizing science as their adversaries - even as they simultaneously scientize politics by implying that political questions can be resolved by science (Weingart 1999; Pielke 2007). As a result, the need for inclusive public deliberation and contestation on such issues - informed by science, of course, but not subordinated to it - becomes obscured, and political conflicts become intractable.

This article develops an alternative perspective on the politics of advisory committees by examining various interpretations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which is the key legislation governing the composition of such committees.

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