Commission to Have Closed Meetings


WASHINGTON (AP) - Out of the spotlight of federal open meeting laws,
members of President Bush's Social Security commission plan to meet in private
next week in what critics say is part of a growing attempt to govern by secrecy.

The 16-member commission plans to split into two groups Wednesday morning at
closed meetings at a Washington hotel to discuss fiscal and administrative issues
related to creating personal Social Security accounts. Later in the day, members
will join for a meeting of the full commission, and it will be open to the public.

"Everything has been completely open. These are the first meetings where the
commissioners are trying to have a little time where not every word they say is
going to be broadcast to the world," said commission spokesman Randy Clerihue.
The morning sessions only will be attended by commissioners and staff, he said.

Public-interest advocates said the commission was trying to skirt the Federal
Advisory Committee Act, which requires open meetings, by gathering in subgroups.
The law defines a meeting as deliberations of at least enough members to take official action.

"You do find these games being played," said Rebecca Daugherty of the
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The commission's subgroup meetings are "exactly what the statute is designed to prevent,"
said Washington lawyer Eric Glitzenstein, who specializes in open government laws.

The commission is "circumventing the open meetings requirement by
basically splitting into two parts," he said. "To me that's just a
flagrant violation of the letter and spirit of the statute."

Critics cite a pattern of attempts to circumvent the law.
Other examples:

-Vice President Dick Cheney has refused to turn over documents to the
General Accounting Office, an investigative agency of Congress, that
detail deliberations on Bush's energy policy. Doing so would
"unconstitutionally interfere" with the White House's duties, he said.

-The White House balked at giving a Senate committee access to documents
involving decisions to roll back several major environmental regulations.
The administration relented after Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate
Government Affairs Committee, threatened to subpoena the documents.

- A Health Care Finance Administration advisory committee was accused of
violating federal law in 1998 by conducting closed meetings even though
its members included nongovernment officials. HCFA removed insurance
company officials and restructured the committee.

Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who was a House Ways and Means
health subcommittee spokesman at the time, criticized the advisory panel
as "another troubling episode of the administration having a secret
health care task force. They should open their meetings immediately."

- The Clinton administration ran into trouble with the same law in 1993 in keeping
closed meetings of its a health care reform task force headed by Hillary Clinton.

Bush's commission is to recommend a plan this fall to let younger workers invest some
of their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market. Any plan still would require
congressional approval.

"The best way to do the public's business is under the scrutiny of the public," said Celia Wexler,
senior policy analyst with Common Cause, a government watchdog group.

"It may not be the most efficient way to do business, but that's not
what's at stake here. Everyone in this country, every American, has a
stake in what happens to Social Security," she said.

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