Who Rules America?  By G. William Domhoff, University of California at Santa Cruz

Power in America

The Corporate Community, Nonprofit Organizations, and Federal Advisory Committees: A Study in Linkages

by G. William Domhoff

Federal advisory committees are a little-known, little-studied, but often important link between the corporate community and the federal government.

Not much was known about these committees until the early 1970s, when Senator Lee Metcalf of Montana turned his attention to them. With the help of a savvy aide, Vic Reinemer, and taking advantage of the general ferment about government secrecy, Metcalf was able to pass a new Federal Advisory Committee Act in 1972. It required that records of all advisory committees be made available to the public, except for those pertaining to the CIA, the Federal Reserve System, and areas restricted by reason of "national security."

Since 1973 the government has provided an annual report on federal advisory committees. Materials on the committees can be found in libraries under the keyword "federal advisory committees." Most current materials are now available electronically. They can be found through InfoTrack or other general magazine/journal databases. A search for "federal advisory committee," without an "s" on committee, locates thousands of announcements of meetings and other information related to one of these committees. Usually it is FedNet Government News that is providing the information. For example:

DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, Bureau of Land Management, Sierra Front-Northwestern Great Basin Resource Advisory Council; Notice of Meeting Locations and Times. FedNet Government News March 1, 2005 (256 words).

When the "s" is added, "federal advisory committees" locates several dozen articles relating to these committees. Often they concern medical, scientific, and technical issues relating to the government.

There have been only a relative handful of social-science studies making use of the information on advisory committees. They can be located through various social-science abstracts. The first study by a power structure researcher (Useem, 1980) showed that the corporate members of advisory committees in 1976 were more often on several corporate boards and in policy-planning organizations than other business executives. Business leaders were most often on advisory committees for the state, defense, commerce, and interior departments at that time.

A study of high-level executives from the largest 50 financial corporations and largest 150 non-financials revealed that 72% of the companies had an executive on at least one advisory committee in 1973, with the figure falling to 47.5% in 1977 (Priest, Sylves, & Scudder, 1984). The researchers suggest that the decline was due to the legislation leading to greater publicity for committee members. When they looked at business representation by executive department, they agreed with Useem (1980) on state, defense, commerce, and interior, but added the Department of Treasury and the newly founded Department of Energy to the list. In fact, business involvement was greatest in 1977 with the various agencies that were put into the Department of Energy.

More recently, Balla and Wright (2001) conclude that "interest groups" are able to place their members on relevant federal advisory committees, which for these political scientists means that the government receives good information on the "true preferences" of private interests. Well, that's one way of putting it, I guess.

Another recent study used a comparison of committees with open or closed meetings to test various theories concerning their role (Karty, 2002). It first of all found that 58% of all federal advisory committee members in the years from 1997 through 2000 were from universities and independent research institutes, reflecting the large role of professors and researchers in reviewing scientific grant proposals and in providing advice on medical and technical issues. Another 18% of committee members were from corporations or business trade associations. They served on very different committees than the professors and researchers. Another 13% of members came from the government. The remainder came from a wide range of areas, including nonprofit organizations, foundations, public interest groups, and trade unions.

The comparison of committees with open and closed meetings, using sophisticated quantitative analyses, provided support for the idea that some advisory committees are "captured" by one or another industry. This was especially the case for committees of the Department of Commerce and the Department of Agriculture in this study. However, the author notes that the years 1997 through 2000 were in some ways unusual when he compared them with data for earlier years, so he urged caution in interpreting and generalizing his results. Still, this study shows the kind of detailed work on large databases that is now possible.

If there is any doubt that the corporate community has a large impact, to the point of capture, on the advisory committees in the Department of Commerce, it should be dispelled by research showing that they played a key role in formulating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for presentation to Congress (Dreiling, 2001). It also describes how the advisory committees were linked to the corporations that had formed a lobbying alliance called NAFTA*USA, which in turn had been created by one of the most central policy-discussion groups in the corporate community, the Business Roundtable. More generally, Dreiling's study is one of the most sophisticated and detailed quantitative analyses ever produced of the overall tight relationships among corporations, policy groups, Political Action Committees (PACs), federal advisory committees, and Congress. It shows how the policy groups work through the advisory committees to develop the policy initiatives they want presented to Congress, then form temporary lobbying groups to make sure their plans get through Congress. The donations from the PACs come into the picture by reminding the legislators of the source of most of their campaign funding, the corporate community.

The most recent and exhaustive sociological study using membership records for the advisory committees is a network analysis of the connections among corporations, nonprofit groups, and federal advisory committees. It uses director and membership information from 1998 to discover that the overlaps between some corporations and advisory boards are so large that four advisory committees are among the most central organizations in a combined corporate/nonprofit/advisory committee network (Moore et al., 2003; Moore, Sobieraj, Whitt, Mayorova, & Beaulieu, 2002). The details of this interesting study are provided below.

How important are these advisory committees? The top business leaders apparently think they are important, as shown by their participation on them. However, there is only one in-depth study of how they function, from back in the 1970s. It is based on secret minutes of an advisory committee to the Department of Defense that existed from 1962 through 1972, during the tensions of the Vietnam War. Many of those tensions are revealed in the minutes. These documents were given to a member of an anti-military group of that era, National Action/Research on the Military-Industrial Complex, known as NARMIC. The article based on the minutes was written by a research consultant to the NARMIC group (Roose, 1975). The article can be found at the end of this document. It shows that it is often the seemingly small things that matter to corporations when it comes to government regulations. The devil is in the details.


Before going to the recent findings by Moore, et al. (2002) on interlocks between the corporate community, nonprofit organizations, and the federal advisory committees, a word or two on the committees they studied for 1998 might be useful.

There are over 37,000 seats on about 1,000 federal advisory committee and commissions, which give their advice to the relevant agencies of government. Not all 37,000 people were studied in the Moore, et al. research report I am drawing on here. Of necessity, the study focused on the names in its database of directors for 100 corporations and 109 nonprofit groups (specifically, 12 policy-planning groups, 50 foundations, and 47 charities). The study then checked to see which names in the database also appeared as members of federal advisory committees. So it is not a study of all members of all federal advisory committees.

According to this study, over 60% of the 37,000 advisory committee appointees are professionals in medicine and social welfare who are helping out the Department of Health and Human Services. Another 10% are on committees related to the Department of Transportation. Others give advice to science agencies of the government. There are few or no people from the corporate community or the policy-planning network who serve on these particular committees.

The main findings

There are four main findings from the Moore et al. study that relate to the power of the corporate community and the closely related policy-planning network. First, the corporate and nonprofit directors most often sat on advisory committees for the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the FCC. Table 1 lists the top 15 committees in terms of involvement by directors in the study's database. (Also, the names of all the business and policy-group members who served on these 15 committees are listed in the Appendix below.)

Second, a handful of corporate executives served on two or more of these committees, and they were very important corporate executives indeed. In fact, they often sat together on the same few committees. The most visible of them was future President George W. Bush's good friend, Kenneth Lay, who presided over the disgraceful cheating at Enron Corporation. He served on the National Petroleum Council and the President's Council for Sustainable Development in 1998, both in the Department of Energy.

Third, it is noteworthy that even though the study used committee members from the Clinton Administration, the list included people like Richard B. Cheney, Secretary of Defense in the George H. W. Bush administration, and soon to be Vice President in the George W. Bush Administration. He served on the Department of Energy's National Petroleum Council, where he joined with his friend Kenneth Lay of Enron. At the time, Cheney was chairman of Halliburton, a conglomerate of construction and oil drilling companies. Paul O'Neill, then the chairman of Alcoa, but soon to be Bush's first Secretary of Treasury, also served on an advisory committee. What these examples tell us is that pro-Republican business executives have plenty of access to Democratic administrations.

Table 1: The top 15 advisory committees in terms of linkages to the corporate/foundation/think tank/policy-planning group/university/charity/advisory committee network.

NameCentrality score
Network Reliability and Interoperability Council2.410
President's National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee2.375
President's Export Council2.322
National Petroleum Council1.658
International Competition and Policy Advisory Committee1.484
Overseas Presence Advisory Panel0.776
President's Council on Sustainable Development0.766
Advisory Committee on Labor Diplomacy0.758
Bureau of Land Management Science Advisory Board0.736
National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century0.723
Historically Black Colleges and Universities Advisory Board0.707
Advisory Committee to the Director of National Institute of Health0.700
National Advisory Committee for the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation0.699
American National Coal Council0.695
Defense Policy Advisory Committee on Trade0.132

Fourth, several of the federal advisory committees have a central position in the overall network created by the links among the directors in the database. To make this point, Table 2 presents the 15 most central organizations in the database when federal advisory committees are included. Well-known corporations like Verizon, Procter & Gamble, and Exxon Mobil are in this select circle. There is a major policy-planning group (the Committee for Economic Development), the most important foundation (the Ford Foundation), and a prestigious university (Columbia). And there are four federal advisory committees.

Table 2: The 15 most central organizations in the corporate/foundation/think tank/policy-planning group/university/charity/advisory committee network.

OrganizationSector/SubsectorCentrality score
Committee for Economic DevelopmentThink Tank140.81
University of ChicagoUniversity3.66
Conference BoardThink Tank3.60
Proctor & GambleBusiness3.21
National Bureau of Economic ResearchThink Tank3.01
Network Reliability and Interoperability CouncilGovernment Advisory Board2.41
President's National Security Telecommunications Advisory CommitteeGovernment Advisory Board2.38
Allied SignalBusiness2.36
Exxon MobilBusiness2.36
President's Export CouncilGovernment Advisory Board2.32
Columbia UniversityUniversity1.66
Ford FoundationFoundation1.66
Sara Lee CorporationBusiness1.66
National Petroleum CouncilGovernment Advisory Board1.66


Based on the prominence of the executives serving on these particular federal advisory committees, and the centrality of some of the committees within the corporate/nonprofit network, there is good reason to believe that they have an important role in the overall power system. However, there is a need for more case studies of advisory committees on which business executives serve, beginning with the prominent advisory committees in Table 1.

For further reading, see "Top Dogs and Top Brass: An inside look at a government advisory committee," by Diana Roose (1975).


Balla, S. J., & Wright, J. R. (2001). Interest groups, advisory committees, and congressional control of the bureaucracy. American Journal of Political Science,, 45.

Dreiling, M. (2001). Solidarity and Contention: The Politics of Class and Sustainability in the NAFTA Conflict. New York: Garland Press.

Karty, K. D. (2002). Closure and capture in federal advisory committees. Business and Politics, 4, 213-238.

Moore, G., Raffalovich, L., Whitt, J. A., Sobieraj, S., Beaulieu, D., & Dolan, S. (2003). Ties that bind: Exploring the neglected role of nonprofits in corporate and government networks. Paper presented at the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, GA.

Moore, G., Sobieraj, S., Whitt, J., Mayorova, O., & Beaulieu, D. (2002). Elite interlocks in three U.S. sectors: Nonprofit, corporate, and government. Social Science Quarterly, 83, 726-744.

Priest, T. B., Sylves, R. T., & Scudder, D. F. (1984). Corporate advice: Large corporations and federal advisory committees. Social Science Quarterly, 65, 100-111.

Roose, D. (1975). Top Dogs and Top Brass: An inside look at a government advisory committee. The Insurgent Sociologist, 5, 53-63.

Useem, M. (1980). Which Business Leaders Help Govern? In G. W. Domhoff (Ed.), Power Structure Research (pp. 199-225). Beverly Hills: Sage.


This appendix lists the members of 15 federal advisory committees who are also with corporations or policy-planning groups in the non-governmental part of the database created by Moore et al. Their main director affiliations are included next to their names. If a person serves on two or more of the 15 advisory committees, the number by his or her name indicates the number of committees.

Note that "CED" stands for the Committee for Economic Development, a policy-planning group.

The names are grouped by committee so that readers can see the kinds of corporations and policy-planning groups that tend to be involved with different types of committees.

Agency / CommitteeMemberDirectorships
Federal Communications Commission
Network Reliability and Interoperability Council
Ackerman, F. Duane (2)BellSouth
Armstrong, C. Michael (3)AT&T; Travelers Group
Condit, Philip M. (3)Hewlett Packard
Esrey, William T. (2)Duke Energy; Exxon Mobil; Sprint
Galvin, Christopher B.Motorola; Rand; American Enterprise Institute
Lee, Charles R. (2)GTE; USX; Procter & Gamble
Mcginn, Richard A.Lucent Technologies
Morgridge, John P.Nature Conservancy
Notebaert, Richard C.Sears & Roebuck; Ameritech
Roth, John A.CED
Smith, Raymond W.First Union Bank; Brookings Institution
Taylor, Gerald H.MCI
Trujillo, Solomon D. (2)Dayton Hudson; Bank of America
Dept. of Defense
Natl. Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee
Armstrong, C. Michael (3)AT&T; Travelers Group
Brown, Richard H.Electronic Data Systems
Coffman, Vance D. (2)Bristol Myers Squibb; Lockheed Martin
Esrey, William T. (2)Duke Energy; Exxon Mobil; Sprint
Gorman, Joseph T. (2)Procter & Gamble
Lee, Charles R. (2)GTE; Procter & Gamble; USX
Picard, Dennis J. (3)Raytheon
Roberts, Bert C. Jr.MCI
Tooker, Gary L.Atlantic Richfield; Motorola
Trujillo, Solomon D. (2)Bank of America; Dayton Hudson
Dept. of Commerce
President's Export Council
Ackerman, F. Duane (2)BellSouth
Armstrong, C. Michael (3)AT&T; Travelers Group
Condit, Philip M. (3)Boeing; Hewlett Packard
Gordon, Ellen R.CED
Gorman, Joseph T. (2)Procter & Gamble
Jordan, Michael H.Aetna
Kelly, James P.UPS
Picard, Dennis J. (3)Raytheon
Savage, FrankLockheed Martin
Tisch, Jonathan M.Loews Hotels
Turner, Kathryn C. (2)Phillips Petroleum
Dept. of Energy
National Petroleum Council
Beghini, Victor G.USX
Bijur, Peter I.Texaco; International Paper
Blanton, Jack S.SBC
Bowlin, Mike R.Atlantic Richfield
Campbell, Robert H.Cigna
Carroll, Philip J.Flour
Catell, Robert B.CED
Cheney, Richard B.Halliburton; Procter & Gamble; Electronic Data Systems; American Enterprise Institute
Derr, Kenneth T.AT&T; Chevron; Citigroup
Dunham, Archie W.DuPont
Fuller, H. LawrenceAmoco; Motorola
Hendrix, Dennis R.Duke Energy
Hunt, Ray L.Electronic Data Systems
Lay, Kenneth L. (2)Enron; Compaq Computer
McCracken, Edward R.3M
Mulva, James J.Phillips Petroleum
Priory, Richard B.Duke Energy; NationsBank
Raymond, Lee R.Exxon Mobil; Morgan Chase
Sawhill, John C. (3)Pacific Gas & Electric; Procter & Gamble; Nature Conservancy; CED
Dept. of Justice
Intl. Competition Policy Advisory Committee
Baird, ZoeBrookings Institution
Gilmartin, Raymond V.Merck; CED; Conference Board
Jordan, Vernon E. Jr.American Express; Sara Lee; Xerox; JC Penney; Ford Foundation
Rattner, Steven L.Wall Street Investment Banker; Brookings Institution
Stern, PaulaWal-Mart; CED
Dept. of State
Overseas Presence Advisory Panel
Friedman, StephenGoldman Sachs; Wal-Mart; Brookings Institution; National Bureau of Economic Research
Mchenry, Donald F.International Paper; AT&T; Coca Cola
O'Neill, Paul H.Bank of America; Eastman Kodak; Lucent Technologies; American Enterprise Institute
Welch, John F. Jr.General Electric
Dept. of Energy
Council on Sustainable Development
Buzzelli, David T.Dow Chemical
Johnson, Samuel C.Exxon Mobil; Nature Conservancy
Lay, Kenneth L. (2)Enron; Compaq Computer
Pearce, Harry J.General Motors
Sawhill, John C. (3)Pacific Gas & Electric; Procter & Gamble; Nature Conservancy; CED
Dept. of State
Advisory Committee on Labor Diplomacy
Donahue, Thomas R.Council on Foreign Relations
Doyle, Frank P. (2)CED
Marshall, RayUSX
Dept. of the Interior
Bureau of Land Management Science Advisory Board
Andrus, Cecil DaleAlbertson's
Sawhill, John C. (3)Pacific Gas & Electric; Procter & Gamble; Nature Conservancy; CED
Dept. of Education
NN\ational Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century
Barrett, Craig R.Intel
Massey, Walter E.Bank of America; Amoco; Motorola
Rust, Edward B. Jr.State Farm Insurance; American Enterprise Institute
Tien, Chang L.Chevron; CED
Dept. of Education
Historically Black Colleges and Universities Advisory Board
Gray, William H. IIIElectronic Data Systems; Prudential
Dept. of Health & Human Services
Advisory Committee to the Director of NIH
Simmons, Ruth J.CED
Dept. of Labor
Advisory Committee for North American Agreement
Doyle, Frank P. (2)CED
Dept. of Energy
American National Coal Council
Draper, E. L Jr.American National Coal Council; CED
Dept. of Defense
Defense Policy Advisory Committee on Trade
Augustine, Norman R.Phillips Petroleum; Procter & Gamble
Brown, HaroldPhillip Morris; RAND Corporation; Trilateral Commission
Burt, Richard R.Archer Daniels Midland
Coffman, Vance D. (2)Bristol Myers Squibb; Lockheed Martin
Condit, Philip M. (3)Boeing; Hewlett Packard
David, George A.United Technologies
Greenberg, Maurice R.AIG Insurance; Council on Foreign Relations
Kresa, KentChrysler; Atlantic Richfield
Nye, Joseph S. Jr.Trilateral Commission
Picard, Dennis J. (3)Raytheon
Turner, Kathryn C.Phillips Petroleum

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