TOPICS > Politics

Test of Privilege: Rep. Waxman

January 31, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: We begin with the view from Congress, and to representative Henry Waxman of California, the ranking democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform. Congressman, you heard the Vice President talk about how turning over the information you and the GAO seeks would create a precedent, in effect, that would have Congress looking over the shoulder of the President and Vice President whenever they have private meetings. What do you say to that?

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: What’s unprecedented is the refusal of Vice President Cheney to turn over this information. The precedent has always been that when there’s been a request by the General Accounting Office or the Congress, the administration, Democratic and Republican, has given that information to these… To the legislative branch.

Two examples: The Clinton administration had a taskforce on health reform. The General Accounting Office wanted to know all the information about how that task force operated. They got all that information from the Clinton White House. There was another group called the task force on relations with China and trade with China. And the Congress asked for information, and they got all the information. It is really quite unprecedented for Vice President Cheney to make these kinds of arguments, because they’ve never been advanced before.

And furthermore, the General Accounting Office has never asked for his conversations in detail with the staff and people that work in the administration. The only item that the General Accounting Office has requested is the names of the lobbyists and special-interest groups, the campaign contributors that contacted the energy task force, and the subject that they raised– nothing more than that. GAO limited its request in order to try to accommodate the concerns that were raised by the Vice President when he was first contacted to turn over this information.

RAY SUAREZ: If your committee and other committees in the House of Representatives wanted this information, why didn’t you subpoena it, rather than using the General Accounting Office?

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: I am in the minority in the house of representatives, so we don’t have any ability to subpoena the information. But we have another source, and that’s to go to the General Accounting Office. It’s a nonpartisan watchdog on behalf of Congress, and we requested initially– by we, Congressman Dingell and myself– but then the chairman of committees and subcommittees in the Senate joined in our request to ask the GAO to give us a dispassionate, not partisan evaluation of who went to the energy task force and what was the subject matter that they were asking about when they wanted to influence the Cheney task force.

Now, a lot of these lobbyists were representing special interests and campaign contributors. And when we asked for it, we didn’t know that Enron was going to collapse but now that we know that Enron has collapsed, it even makes it more incumbent that we get this information, because let me just state some facts: Ken Lay and Enron were the single largest contributors to President Bush’s political campaigns. We know Ken Lay met a number of times with Vice President Cheney. We learned yesterday that there was a memo that Ken Lay handed the Vice President asking for specific items to be in his energy proposal, and that the overwhelming majority of those requests were in the bill that was submitted to the Congress.

We did an evaluation of the bill and found 17 specific items that Enron wanted. Other companies wanted them, as well, and I’m not saying they weren’t meritorious, but it seems to me that the public should have the right to know, and certainly Congress in our oversight responsibility should be able to evaluate, who was influencing the decisions of the energy task force from the outside — not the discussions on the inside between Cheney and his staff and others in the administration, but the outside special-interest groups.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, if your general proposition is that the Congress should know who’s petitioning the executive branch, the executive branch has responded by saying that in order to keep the channels of information open, keep the freedom of movement of executive officers of the government to consult with whom they choose when making policy, they shouldn’t have to reveal who every conversation is with.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: If you follow that logic and you don’t even have to name the outside parties that have come in to try to influence policy, then the public would never know who was influencing the policy. Congress would never have a hearing on a piece of legislation and have the names of the groups that came in to argue for and against the proposals kept secret. There has to be some transparency in the way government operates.

Good government is government that is open, and what Congress has asked for is no different than what, in the last five years, ten Republican committee chairmen asked from the Clinton administration and got as they looked at a whole range of investigations where they were trying to see whether campaign contributions to President Clinton’s campaign might have influenced the policy decisions that his administration made. This is a legitimate area for review, and to say that you’re simply not going to answer the questions and give any information, it would mean that the administration wouldn’t be open to oversight, to review, they would not be able to operate in secrecy, and they’d never be held accountable for what they propose.

RAY SUAREZ: If you were a state representative and we were having this conversation on a statewide public television network, there would be an open meetings act in effect in many places. But there isn’t one for the federal government, is there, or an equivalent?

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Well, there is for the Congress, to have the official meetings open. There is the right of the Congress under the Constitution to exercise oversight over the executive branch of government. Our Constitution envisions a check and balance, and if the administrative… If the executive branch can operate without oversight from the Congress, what that does is invest an enormous amount of power in the presidency at the expense of the Congress and the people because we wouldn’t have, then, the right to evaluate what they’re doing and to know how they came to the recommendations that they’re proposing to the Congress.

RAY SUAREZ: Representative Henry Waxman of California, thanks a lot for being with us.