Common Cause has named seven of the 47 federal agencies covered by the year old Sunshine Act "The Secret Seven," based on what the public interest lobby group called "the most consistent records of secrecy."
Less than 40 percent of the federal agency meetings held during the first year of the Sunshine Act - legislation designed to open federal agency meetings to the public - were, in fact, open to the public, Common Cause said.
"Government agencies are thumbing their noses at the American tax-payer," Common Cause president David Cohen said. "They are often closing their doors to the public even when an open discussion of the subject matter is clearly in the public interest."
Cohen said the agencies are closing meetings under one or another of the Act's exemption clauses.
The report found that during the one-year period from March 12, 1977 to March 11, 1978:
36 percent (813) of the 2,232 meetings held were closed to the public.
26 percent (583) of the meetings were partially closed to the public.
38 percent (846) of the meetings were open to the public.
The seven most secretive agencies, Common Cause said, were the Export-Import Bank, the National Labor Relations Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, the United States Parole Commission, the Federal Reserve Board, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.
"These Secret Seven should be called upon to explain their consistent records of secrecy," Cohen said. "A few engage heavily in law enforcement and litigation and this might justify their closed meetings, but these agencies have established records of secrecy that appear to go beyond a mere good faith use of legitimate exemptions under the Act.
Four of the seven made heavy use of financial exemptions, the report said. "The worst record of compliance," the report said, "goes to the Export-Import Bank. All 109 meetings of the EIB during the 12 month period were closed."
Cohen also noted that the Federal Reserve Board, which he called a "unique and extremely powerful federal agency," opened only 8 percent of its meetings to the public.
"The Federal Reserve Board continues to conduct the nation's financial business as if it were exempt from the Act," Cohen said. Exemptions based on financial restrictions were named 39 percent of the times as the cause for an agency closing a meeting.
Other exemptions were based on national security (1.2 percent) personal privacy (9.4 percent).
Common Cause contends that many of the exemptions cited by agencies are actually inadequate to cause the meetings to be closed, yet the public is shut out anyway.
But many federal agencies and departments are "carrying innovative and successful consumer/citizen involvement projects," according to a preliminary survey conducted by White House consumer advocate Esther Peterson.
Armed with new policy-making powers from President Carter, Peterson has been questioning every major independent agency and cabinet department on just how much effort they have made toward involving the consumer in decision-making processes.
In a preliminary analysis of what Peterson has learned, which has been sent out to various agencies for comment, and was obtained by the Washington Post, she tells the various agencies to study the report and learn how they can better help the consumer.
"Based on the response," Peterson said in the report, "we have been able to raise questions concerning structure, procedures and agency policies that may be road-blocks preventing effective development of comprhensive consumer programs."
She said she received 84 responses from various departments and agencies. The preliminary report is meant to serve as a "starting point for the more complete analyses and option papers which you have asked our task force to prepare for you," Peterson told the respondents. The task force consists of several people from a wide range of departments.
Three agencies and three cabinet departments stated that they operate as consumer advocates in official proceedings. The Office of Rail Public Counsel of the Interstate Commerce Commission; the consumer office of the Civil Aeronatics Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission all represent consumers before commission hearings.
The Office of the Secretary in the Departments of Transportation and Interior handle the consumer advocate responsibility, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development's consumer office "presents consumer view to departmental program offices and policymakers," according to the report.
Three of eleven cabinet departments were shown to have no department wide consumer function - Agriculture, Defense and Justice. Energy, meanwhile, had the largest budget for consumer interests, $1.3 million. HUD is second with $659,000.
"Less than half of the responding agencies use their consumer office as a mechanism to involve citizens in agency proceedings," the report states. It points out that 42 percent of the agencies consumer offices help to involve citizens in agency proceedings.
But the report states, 85 percent of the agencies do involve consumers in decision making in some form or another.
An optimistic summary in the report concludes that "most respondents indicate that they are involved in implementing and interpreting policy."
But, the report notes, when the consumer function is at the bureau level, the major effort involved the implementation of policy. But when the consumer function is at a department level, the consumer office "often becomes involved in policy interpretation."
Meanwhile, Peterson has a new, albeit unusual, ally in her fight to increase consumer involvement in agency proceedings.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which fought White House efforts to create an independent Consumer Agency to handle consumer representation government-wide, now says it supports President Carter's efforts to "upgrade consumer representation within the Federal government and to exert stronger White House authority to coordinate and oversee agency programs."
The Chamber wrote a letter to President Carter yesterday, saying that it believes its members "share a vital stake in the success of [Peterson's] project."