Shades of Cheney

I am more and more reminded of the Bush-Cheney Administration. Not only are the (literal) war-horses being recycled, but the enormous disdain of Congress and the refusal of any accountability to the public are painfully familiar to any of us who endured that period.

To wit, the White House is stonewalling the Government Accountability Office, according to a May 30 report in Government Executive.  Not to give the current White House any ideas, but this is a mere sfumatura (as Italians would say) of the confrontation that Cheney created.  The following is excerpted from my 2007 book, Who Needs to Know?

On April 19, 2001, Representatives Dingell and Waxman launched joint requests to both the Vice President and the General Accounting Office concerning the Vice President’s Energy Task Force, its members, and its proceedings.

In response to the request by Representatives Dingell and Waxman, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued the first demand letter ever to a sitting Vice President.  GAO considered its statutory authority to be clear.

Counsel to the Vice President David Addington responded to the Congressional request, explaining that the Energy Group was not subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act.  As a matter of comity, though, he would provide some answers about the Energy Group’s members, staff and activities. Addington declared that GAO was seeking “to intrude into the heart of Executive deliberations, including deliberations among the President, the Vice President, members of the President’s Cabinet, and the President’s immediate assistants, which the law protects to ensure the candor in Executive deliberation necessary to effective government.”[1] GAO argued that even assuming this claim was accurate, it still had the authority to make the requests it had made.

On Sept. 27, for the first time in the 81‑year history of the agency, the comptroller general of the United States went to Federal court today to ask a judge to order a member of the executive branch to turn over records to Congress.

It was clear, even this early in this administration, that executive privilege was an issue of central importance to the Administration.  As John Dean—who, as counsel to former President Nixon might be considered to know something about the abuse of power—writes, “not since Richard Nixon stiffed the Congress during Watergate has a White House so openly, and arrogantly, defied Congress’s investigative authority. … Cheney has not claimed “Executive Privilege,” for the Vice President has no such power. Rather, Cheney has claimed ‑ and Bush has backed up his claim ‑ that GAO (and therefore the Congress, too) has no authority to seek the information they have requested.[2]

Dean also noted “the special attention” given this case:

In fact, it is unique in the history of the Department of Justice. Normally, this case would have been handled by the Civil Division of the Justice Department. But this case is one of a select few being handled by a newly created special unit under the direction of Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement. …Not only is this nameless ad hoc group representing Vice President Cheney, but no less than the Solicitor General himself, Theodore Olson, was seated at the trial table in the Judge Bates’s courtroom during the recent augment. Typically, the Solicitor General only appears before the U.S. Supreme Court. For the SG to appear in the U.S. District Court was clearly designed to send a message to the Judge of the unusual importance the Bush‑Cheney Administration has given this case ‑‑ not to mention to prepare the SG for later arguing the case before higher courts.”[3]

On December 9, 2002, U.S District Judge John Bates, a Bush appointee and former Kenneth Starr deputy, ruled against GAO (Walker v. Cheney). The opinion reads:

“The parties agree that no court has ever before granted what the Comptroller General seeks – an order that the President (or Vice-President) must produce information to Congress (or the Comptroller General). Because the Comptroller General does not have the personal, concrete, and particularized injury required under Article III standing doctrine, either himself or as the agent of Congress, his complaint must be dismissed. Historically, the Article III courts have not stepped in to resolve disputes between the political branches over their respective Article I and Article II powers; this case, in which neither a House of Congress nor any congressional committee has issued a subpoena for the disputed information or authorized this suit, is not the setting for such unprecedented judicial action.[4]

This decision, in essence, secures the Bush Administration’s position that it has the right to withhold from the public–and Congress–any and all details of its policy-development meetings with non-governmental people. It also chills any attempt by Congress to use the GAO to monitor the executive branch.

We are not yet there, but not for the lack of trying by the Trump administration.

[1] John W. Dean. “GAO v. Cheney Is Big‑time Stalling: The Vice President Can Win Only If We Have Another Bush v. Gore ‑like Ruling .”  FindLaw, Friday, Feb. 01, 2002. http://writ.news.findlaw.com/dean/20020201.html
[2] Ibid.
[3] John W. Dean. “The Ongoing Fight Between the Supreme Court And Congress, as Illustrated by the GAO/Cheney Suit: Part Two Of A Series On Shrinking Congressional Powers.” FindLaw, Friday, October 25, 2002.  http://writ.news.findlaw.com/dean/20021025.html
[4] Memorandum Opinion and Order. Walker v. Cheney, 230 F. Supp. 2d 51 (D.D.C. 2002)

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