August 17, 2001
Every now and again, even Tom DeLay can smell a rat. "Why would you claim executive privilege if you want to tell the truth?" the House Republican whip once observed.
I wish I could tell you that DeLay said this over the last few months or so in relation to the refusal of Vice President Dick Cheney to be fully forthcoming about his federal task force that developed the Bush administration's national energy policy.
Of course, I can't tell you that. Because at least as far as the public record is concerned, DeLay hasn't uttered a peep about Cheney's stone-walling. DeLay's remonstrations were, as agile-minded readers have probably guessed, from a few years back (May 1998) and related to some Clinton-era shenanigan.
Foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but is it asking too much for DeLay and other Republicans who spent the dying days of the last century caterwauling about the Democratic White House to be a tad concerned about how their own guys operate? Yes, of course, it's asking too much. How foolish of me to even raise the matter.
But, to quote DeLay: "The public has a right to know about the actions in the White House, and it has a right to know when and why the president is invoking executive privilege." (More 1998)
DeLay is on to something there. The president is the only person who can actually invoke executive privilege, and President Bush has so far kept his distance from this fight. We can assume, however, that the president would stand by his man in (I apologize for using this phrase in connection with this vice president) a heart beat.
Cheney seems to be aware of the fact that, exalted as he may be, he can't actually claim executive privilege. So, in his most definitive refusal to date to fork over the requested data to the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, Cheney skirted the issue. He alluded to the more general doctrine of separation of powers and said that complying with GAO's request would "unconstitutionally interfere with the functioning of the Executive Branch."
How inventive. Forking over the information would also probably disclose what one can only guess was the task force's extremely close consultation with representatives of Big Oil.
That Dick Cheney, while working for fellow former oilman George W. Bush, might just happen to converse with such estimable energy industry figures as Enron chairman (and as of last week president and CEO as well) Ken Lay is hardly a surprise. But if these consultations occur in the course of a federal task force preparing a national energy plan, they, and all similar contacts, should be disclosed.
That was the sound point at the heart of the request by Reps. John Dingell of Michigan and Henry Waxman of California, ranking Democrats, respectively, on the House commerce and governmental reform committees, in asking GAO to undertake an inquiry into whom Cheney's task force consulted (and when and where and for how long).
Cheney's position, in effect, is that the public can take a look at the result of the task force's work and take it or leave it. Even if Cheney is found to be on firm legal ground in withholding details of such contacts, he is on rotten public policy territory.
There are reports that the task force held several so-called "stakeholder" sessions with major energy industry representatives, closed-door meetings in which the Oil Boys got to spin out their dreams of less regulation and more profits. But there apparently were no such venting sessions for folks who just pay at the pump. The task force members must have figured they can just ask their chauffeurs for that kind of street-level take on the problem.
When the Clinton administration initially tried this kind of high-handedness with clandestine counsels of its ill-fated health-care task force Republicans, rightly, went on the war path. But now we get not a murmur of protest from DeLay et al. In fact, just the opposite. As Bush and Congress fled Washington for their August break, the majority whip was clicking his heels as the House passed the energy bill : "Mr. President, mission accomplished."
As Dingell and Waxman said, recalcitrance in Cheney's office amounts to an "arrogant and unnecessary confrontation."
Soon, another DeLay quote may be apropos. "Pulling people together in secret to write this (and then not disclosing details) ... This certainly smacks of a cover-up," the House Republican whip said (July 1994) of the health-care effort. Admittedly not a Nixonian or Clintonian cover-up, but you take my point? This crowd was supposed to be different.
Hines is a Houston Chronicle columnist based in Washington, D.C. firstname.lastname@example.org
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