Science & Technology in Congress
On January 7, the House of Representatives adopted a resolution establishing its administrative rules of conduct for the newly-formed 105th Congress. Among the rules is a new item requiring all non-governmental witnesses who testify before Congress to submit, in advance, the source and amount of any federal grants and contracts they currently receive, or have received in the last two years. The rule does not require disclosure of payments to individuals from entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.
The purpose of the rule is to reveal potential conflicts of interest among witnesses; or as the rule states, "to give committee members, the public, and the press a more detailed context in which to consider a witness' testimony," with respect to the degree to which they have benefited from federal support. This has raised the concern among nonprofits and lobbying organizations that the rule could be used as a tool by committee members to cast aspersions on testimony. The implications of the new rule are of particular concern to organizations which are consortia of other organizations. In such a case, a witness from the umbrella body may be required to disclose information about grants and contracts received by member organizations, depending upon their "representative capacity.ä
Supporters of the rule believe that it will help identify the biases of witnesses who are offering supposedly objective testimony, even if they are funded by the programs they are testifying about. The rule is aimed in particular at advocacy groups who may use taxpayer dollars to further their own political ends. However, one committee staff person pointed out that very little thought was given to the impact the rule might have on expert witnesses. The rule may be an obstacle to obtaining informed, objective testimony if it taints the witnesses with suspicion of a biased perspective.
A representative of a major research university suggested that the rule has potential to be cumbersome for both committee and witness, if for example, a university president is required to list all of the federal grants and contracts received from a source such as NIH. However, he also said that it probably wouldn't be as bad as it sounds. The wording of the rule is vague enough in demanding "relevant" information, that committees and witnesses may be able to avoid generating unnecessary and irrelevant information, while still complying with the intent of the rule.
The only thing that can be said for certain about the new rule is that there are a lot of unanswered questions, particularly whether or not it will influence, adversely or otherwise, the reliability of the testimony that the committees receive. The impact of the rule is likely to be determined by the way it is interpreted and implemented by the committees as the 105th Congress gets underway.