Department of Education: Compliance With the Federal Advisory Committee Act and lobbying Restrictions

GGD/OGC-00-18: Dec 30, 1999

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined the regular weekly meetings held by the Department of Education with representatives of lobbying and other organizations interested in federal education issues, focusing on whether: (1) the meetings were subject to the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA); (2) Education violated appropriations restrictions on lobbying; (3) FACA applies to two series of meetings on urban education issues that Education held in 1996 and 1997 with outside groups; and (4) statutory provisions prohibiting the use of appropriated funds for lobbying purposes had been violated by meetings occurring in fiscal years 1995 and 1996.

GAO noted that: (1) the evidence GAO reviewed does not support a conclusion that the various series of meetings GAO considered were "advisory committee" meetings within the scope of FACA or that Education officials violated the applicable antilobbying restrictions; (2) factors in determining the existence of an advisory committee include the formality and structure of the group and whether the group was established to obtain advice or recommendations for the agency on an identified policy or issue; (3) in the fall of 1995, Education began hosting meetings every Thursday with representatives of organizations interested in education; (4) it does not appear that Education began or continued to hold the meetings for the purpose of obtaining advice or recommendations on any departmental policy; (5) in 1996 and 1997, Education held a series of 5 meetings with approximately 66 participants; (6) the meetings resembled focus groups, in that suggestions and opinions were offered by individual participants; (7) although some suggestions involved possible action by the federal government, they appeared to be generated at the participants' initiative rather than in response to a request for advice on a governmental issue; (8) during the periods in question, Education was subject to a criminal provision, which prohibits the use of appropriated funds for certain lobbying purposes, as well as several other antilobbying appropriations provisions; (9) these provisions are generally understood to mean an appeal to members of the public to contact legislators to influence pending legislation; (10) GAO did not find evidence to support a conclusion that Education violated the more broadly interpreted antilobbying appropriations provisions; (11) GAO reviewed several statements alleged to have been made by Education officials to determine whether there were violations of the appropriations restrictions on lobbying; (12) most of these alleged statements were general requests for help or support in connection with legislative proposals and did not contain the express request for participants to contact Congress; and (13) based on evidence relating to meetings between Education and private groups concerning Education's budget, GAO cannot conclude that Education officials were improperly encouraging participants to contact Congress or were providing improper assistance to the groups.