The Reagan administration plans to take steps to cut spending for federal advisory committees, a move critics say could reduce public participation in government policy making.
The General Services Administration, which oversees the committees' operations, this week said it will order federal agencies to terminate committees that don't meet, stop paying most committee members (except for their per-diem expenses), limit the size of the panels and trim the use of committee consultants.
The directives are designed to cut by 10 percent the $80 million that the government's more than 850 committees, commissions and boards now spend annually. Shortly after President Reagan took office he ordered that the committees' budgets be cut by 5 percent. The financially strapped agencies did better than that however, nearly doubling those cuts.
Federal advisory committees provide an opportunity for the public to give decision makers broad advice on major national issues such as aging, violent crime or asbestos hazards in schools. Other committees provide expert technical advice on such diverse subjects as swine health, trade in nonferrous ores and metals and cytology, or the study of human cells.
The most controversial GSA directive would eliminate compensation in most cases for those who serve on committees, except for travel and per-diem expenses. In most instances, agencies now decide what their committee members will receive--up to $215 a day.
Charles S. (Terry) Davis III, associate GSA administrator for policy and management systems, said the agency has received pressure from Capitol Hill to allow the committees to pay professionals, such as lawyers or scientists, who serve as technical experts, but not others, such as housewives or welfare recipients. He would not specify the source of the pressure.
But GSA Administrator Gerald P. Carmen has stuck to his view, as expressed in a letter to Reagan, that, "Keen interest and public spiritedness among private-sector organizations and citizens will attract a sufficient number of highly qualified individuals to serve on committees."
The latest drive is not the first time a president has tried to get a handle on the advisory committees. In 1977 the Carter administration trimmed the number of committees from 1,159 to 875. Since then the number has remained relatively steady. While 112 were terminated in 1981, 104 more were created, according to GSA's figures.
The panels generally remain obscure unless a committee completes a well-publicized study of a major issue or recommends a controversial change in government policy.
The administration has drawn some new attention by juggling the membership of certain Education, Justice, Health and Human Services and Agriculture Department advisory committees in a way that some viewed as heavy-handed and politically motivated.
Davis said GSA wants to attack inefficiences in the advisory committee process, not to stifle public input into federal agencies.
But Rep. Glenn English (D-Okla.), chairman of the House Government Operations subcommittee on government information and individual rights, notes that 600 fewer committee meetings were conducted last year than the year before.
"Since the bulk of advisory committee operating expenses involve staff support, travel costs and per-diem expenses for advisory committee members," English said, "it appears that a 15 percent decrease in the number of meetings held last year more than accounts for the claimed 8.3 percent savings in operating costs."
An aide to English added, "In this administration, sometimes advisory committee members are not promptly appointed, funds are not provided to cover the cost of the meetings or the committee gives advice which the agency head does not like."
But GSA's Davis said that is "clearly not our intent" in issuing the directive.
GSA has been trying to get the president to issue an executive order or a memorandum ordering the cuts. But officials at the Office of Management and Budget have balked, saying GSA has the necessary authority to impose the cuts. Carmen is apparently the first administrator to use that power.