Congress must place principle before politics
Majority Republicans in Congress must balance the partisan political urge to protect the White House from scandal with a greater interest: to fight for the institutional prerogatives of their branch of government.
Congress, through its General Accounting Office, sued the White House for access to records of secret meetings at which the Bush administration planned its energy policy.
It was the first lawsuit the GAO has filed in its 81-year history, but it was necessary because the Bush White House was the first in history to deny the agency access to its records.
A federal judge ruled this week that the GAO had no legal standing to bring its lawsuit. The ruling, if it stands, could severely weaken the GAO, Congress' investigative arm, and leave a president largely immune from aggressive congressional oversight.
Immune, that is, except when the opposition party is in the majority. Republicans' memories should not be too short to remember their use of the GAO during the Clinton administration.
The ruling raises two issues, both of which should concern even the most partisan member of Congress:
- Arguing that secrecy is needed to gather "unvarnished advice," the White House is using the ruling as a vehicle to roll back the oversight prerogative of Congress. Well-meaning Republicans wishing to protect the White House from embarrassment should not lose sight of this larger consideration.
- The secret meetings in question suggest an emerging pattern of policy-making that skips the vital step of openly consulting with the American people.
The most important co-stars in all this are Enron, the collapsed energy giant, and Vice President Dick Cheney, who chaired many of the energy policy meetings. Cheney says there was no discussion of Enron's dire financial problems or prospects. If that is the case, the records of the closed-door meetings should make that obvious.
Meanwhile, it's clear that Enron did its best to affect public policy both openly and not so openly through its massive campaign contributions. The GAO and fellow plaintiffs fought for records of the secret meetings because they suspect they will show that Bush energy policy was shaped almost exclusively by business interests.
The new ruling suggests that, at times, at least, the White House can operate in complete secrecy without congressional oversight. Congress should move quickly to empower the GAO to sue the White House for needed information.