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Archive for Friday, February 22, 2002

White House set to challenge congressional suit on principle

February 22, 2002

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— The White House, on the eve of the filing of a congressional lawsuit seeking information about its dealings with energy industry executives, signaled Thursday that it is ready to mount a high-level and protracted legal challenge to Congress's right to the information.

The White House disclosed that it would be represented in its battle with the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, by Solicitor General Theodore Olson, the government's top litigator, and by Robert McCallum Jr., the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's Civil Division.

A senior White House official said the top lawyers were selected to remove "any question about how seriously we take this principle." The administration objects to a demand by the GAO for a list of those who met with the administration task force that drafted President Bush's energy policy, arguing that it would inhibit the executive branch's ability to solicit confidential advice.

In addition, the White House indicated that if it failed in its defense against the GAO lawsuit, it would seek to have the statute empowering the GAO declared unconstitutional an action that, if successful, would sharply curtail the legislative branch's oversight of the executive branch.

Asked whether the administration would challenge the statute on constitutional grounds, the senior Bush aide said "yes, we would," then retreated to say lawyers "would evaluate" the possibility. Allowing a GAO victory to stand, the official said, "would create a dangerous precedent."

The White House's willingness to escalate a battle over interpretations of a congressional statute into a constitutional test of the power of the presidency indicates it is willing to sustain a legal battle that could take months if not years to resolve.

The administration had previously indicated some desire to reach an accommodation with Congress over the release of information, but Thursday's statements ruled out that possibility.

Though legal experts are divided on each side's merits, the legal fight could present a political problem by keeping the administration's ties to the energy industry, particularly Enron Corp., in the news. Democrats in Congress are seeking to learn whether Bush campaign contributors had a disproportionate influence over the energy task force, which was led by Vice President Dick Cheney; representatives of Enron met six times with the task force, the White House has said.

The top Bush aide acknowledged that the White House position "may be harder to explain to the public" than to a court, but the aide said: "All we're trying to do is make sure the GAO operates within its statutory authority, and I think the public would certainly support that."

The public is showing increased interest in the scandal surrounding the collapse of Enron. A poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center indicated that 61 percent of Americans describe themselves as attentive to the scandal, up from 43 percent in January and 34 percent in December.

At issue in the GAO suit, which could be filed as soon as today, is the law giving the U.S. Comptroller General, the head of the GAO, powers to "investigate all matters related to the receipt, disbursement, and use of public money." The White House maintains that the GAO is limited to investigating the cost of government activities while the GAO takes a broader view.

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