The policy cop

In an atmosphere of increasing partisanship, the nonpartisan General Accounting Office has been thrown into the public spotlight because of volatile energy debates in Washington, DC.

Aug 24th, 2001

In an atmosphere of increasing partisanship, the nonpartisan General Accounting Office has been thrown into the public spotlight because of volatile energy debates in Washington, DC.

Energy issues have been a hot topic lately for the agency, the investigative arm of Congress. Democrats asked the agency to study the workings of a White House energy task force while Republicans wanted more information on the role state regulators played in the California power crisis.

Studying controversial policy questions is routine for GAO. But this summer's energy debates have been so politically voracious GAO has been having a difficult time obtaining the information it says it needs to comply with lawmakers' requests.

A case in point is the agency's pending study on the White House energy task force, led by Vice-Pres. Dick Cheney.

Democrats argued GAO could provide the proof needed to confirm their suspicions the White House's policy recommendations were influenced by large industry campaign contributors (OGJ Online, May 22, 2001). Republicans and the White House maintained those allegations were baseless, and criticized Democrats for hauling GAO into the battle.

Names sought

To complete its investigation, GAO sought a wide range of information, including the names of industry lobbyists who visited White House officials, dates, and locations and the subjects of the meetings.

The vice-president's office refused to completely comply with the agency's request, arguing that providing the facts would "unconstitutionally interfere" with the executive branch. GAO, meanwhile, maintained it had longstanding legal authority to obtain the records in question.

It remains unclear when the impasse will be resolved. The agency on Aug. 17 wrote President George W. Bush and threatened to sue the administration if the president does not direct Cheney to turn over more information within 20 days. White House officials say they have complied with GAO. However, they have also hinted the president may try to shield further records from being released by invoking executive privilege, an action that could be taken if the White House determines the release of the information could harm the government. GAO says that Bush must turn over the information by Sept. 6 or face a court challenge.

The Democratic-controlled Senate may also pursue its own investigation through oversight hearings that could include subpoenas of industry and government documents.

California denials

Meanwhile, this summer GAO complained that California state officials, including the office of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, ignored repeated requests earlier this year for detailed information about the electricity situation the agency needed for developing a report to Congress. The report was to be prepared at the request of Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.).

The agency said it was unable to obtain information it sought and thus wasn't able to assess the summer 2001 outlook in California, despite meetings with Davis's office and other state officials.

The general information obtained by the GAO was "inadequate to allow us to draw our own conclusions" regarding how individual supply and demand factors would affect the California electricity market.

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