Why Bush, GOP can block all inquiries |
By Susan Page, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — The urge to investigate defined the capital during the Clinton years. But no more.
For nearly a decade, special counsel inquiries and adversarial congressional hearings dominated the headlines, etched bitter partisan lines, led to the impeachment of a president and made the nation's political debates resemble hand-to-hand combat.
Now, some things have changed. The law that provided for special counsels has expired. President Bush's fellow Republicans control both houses of Congress. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has stepped back from challenging the White House after losing a court case that sought to open the records of Vice President Cheney's energy task force.
The result: The White House is better able to control information and prevent a nagging controversy from becoming a full-blown crisis. It's harder for Democrats to demand answers and easier for administration officials to dismiss their charges as political posturing. And Bush faces less of the daily barrage that prompted President Clinton to set up a parallel press operation for investigative inquiries and made Clinton's White House seem at times like an embattled enclave.
Not since the early years of Lyndon Johnson's tenure has a president had more breathing room.
"It's made an enormous difference and it's helped Bush in governing," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist who studied the pursuit of Washington scandals during the Clinton years. "When a president is seen as besieged and entangled in controversy, he really can't get very much done. But when a president commands the central institutions of American politics and has few institutional checks, he can range more widely and hover above the fray."
That doesn't mean partisanship has evaporated or even eased. The charge-and-countercharge on cable TV shows and interest-group ads continue, and Democrats' frustration with the White House is palpable. A sense among avid Democratic voters that party leaders haven't done enough to challenge Bush is boosting the presidential prospects of insurgent Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont.
But Bush's Democratic critics now face a much steeper challenge to force the administration's hand or drive the capital's agenda than Republicans had during the Clinton administration. As the minority party in Congress, the Democrats can't schedule a congressional hearing, issue a subpoena, demand a special counsel or rely on the GAO to get information that the White House doesn't want to give.
Predictably, the parties disagree on whether this a good thing.
"When the Republicans ran the Congress and Clinton was in the White House, there was no accusation too small for them to pursue," says California Rep. Henry Waxman, the senior Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee. "Now that President Bush is in power, there's no scandal so large that they have any interest in examining it."
He says he'd like to have hearings on the no-bid contract awarded to Halliburton, Cheney's former company, to rebuild oilfields in Iraq, for example.
But White House spokesman Scott McClellan says Bush has delivered on his campaign promise to "change the tone" in Washington.
"The American people want us to be forward-looking and want us to work together to get things done, not to continue to settle political scores from the past or score political points," he says. "There is an ugly side of Washington's recent past, and Americans will not look kindly upon partisans or presidential candidates who seek to exploit unsubstantiated rumors or innuendo for political gain."
It's still possible to request a special counsel to investigate accusations that raise potential conflicts of interest for the Justice Department. But the question is now left to Attorney General John Ashcroft's discretion.
So far, Ashcroft hasn't appointed any. And, with a handful of exceptions, congressional Republicans have avoided holding hearings that might embarrass the president — on precisely who was responsible for including disputed intelligence claims in the State of the Union address in January, for instance.
In contrast, by the end of Clinton's first term, Republicans on the Government Reform Committee had issued 40 subpoenas and held three hearings into the firing of workers at the White House travel office and four into the release of confidential FBI files on past officials to a junior White House aide. Five special counsels had been appointed by judicial panels to pursue allegations against Clinton and his Cabinet.
One was named in 1995 to investigate whether Henry Cisneros, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, lied to the FBI about the size of payments he had made to his mistress. Cisneros left the government in 1997 and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the case in 1999.
That inquiry, after pursuing related allegations, is only now closing down. The final report is expected to be submitted this fall. It is the last of the Clinton era to conclude its work.
A blunt weapon
There's little nostalgia for the special counsel law, enacted after the Watergate scandal and allowed to expire in 1999 without protest from either party. Critics say the law became a blunt weapon that propelled marginal accusations into lengthy investigations and maligned innocent people. The Clinton-era special counsels cost taxpayers nearly $133 million.
During the Bush administration, several special counsels have been requested: Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., asked for a special counsel to investigate campaign contributions to Republicans by Westar Energy, a Kansas utility seeking exemption from some regulations. Environmental groups wanted an inquiry into whether the No. 2 official at the Interior Department violated ethics laws to help his former lobbying firm. Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., requested one to pursue possible conflicts of interest in the administration's inquiry into Enron's collapse.
Each time, the Justice Department declined. (Ashcroft recused himself from the Enron case because he had received Enron contributions as a Senate candidate.)
Most Democrats are less concerned about the need for criminal investigations than they are about congressional review, though. Only the majority party can schedule hearings and require testimony. Most committee chairmen, Republican or Democratic, aren't inclined to use those tools to irritate the president when he is from their own party.
So Democrats now express outrage and demand answers through press releases, op-ed articles and open letters, hoping for news coverage or a public groundswell. Lobbying by relatives of people killed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks convinced congressional Republicans and the White House to agree to an independent commission that Democrats wanted, for instance. Persistent media coverage has driven disclosures about those controversial 16 words in the State of the Union.
Florida Sen. Bob Graham, a presidential hopeful and former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says he would love to convene hearings into the "misleading statements" by Bush and others about whether there was credible evidence that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Niger that could be used in a nuclear weapon.
"Were they the result of intelligence agency failures? Or were the agencies acting appropriately but the information they provided was manipulated?" he asks. "I would want to hold a hearing on that."
Democrats also want to explore:
• The administration's refusal to declassify a section of the congressional report on the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The 28 pages reportedly detail possible Saudi involvement.
• The help that the Federal Aviation Administration gave in May to Texas Republicans who were trying to track down Democratic state legislators. The Democrats had flown to Oklahoma to avoid a special session on redistricting.
• Allegations that the administration has distorted scientific findings to justify political decisions involving missile defense, environmental protection and other issues. Waxman last week issued a 40-page report on the subject. A White House spokesman dismissed it as partisan sniping.
"We still have our voices and our ability to speak out when we see things we don't like," says Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, another presidential contender and the senior Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
But he says "it would be a lot different" if Democrats could schedule hearings and call witnesses. "They'd be under a lot more pressure than they are today."
Stuart Roy, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has no sympathy for the other side: "You have Democrats feeling irrelevant, and the only way they can make themselves feel more relevant is to engage in the politics of personal destruction."
To some extent, partisans in both parties have switched sides. Democrats like Waxman who decried investigations of the Clinton administration now express frustration about lacking the tools to get answers from the Bush administration. Republicans like DeLay who defended the Clinton-era inquiries now dismiss proposed investigations as political grandstanding.
An agency defanged
When the General Accounting Office sought information about Cheney's energy task force, the White House refused. Administration officials said they were determined to rebuff what they saw as an incursion on the president's constitutional authority.
The GAO then filed its first-ever lawsuit against the White House demanding the information. But in February, the agency announced it was dropping the case after losing a round in federal court, although the watchdog group Judicial Watch is continuing its lawsuit on the same issue. The head of the GAO, David Walker, said he wouldn't sue the administration again unless he had the approval of the House and Senate oversight committees — committees that control the agency's budget and are now ruled by Republicans.
"Much of this is the result of unified government," with the White House and Congress under one party's control, says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, who arrived in Washington as a speechwriter for President Eisenhower and has been studying capital affairs ever since. Bush's unchallenged position at the head of the GOP and the discipline imposed by Republican congressional leaders have magnified the advantages.
Bush is in an even stronger position than the last two presidents who had unified governments. Democrats controlled both houses of Congress during the first two years of Clinton's presidency, but Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn nonetheless held critical hearings on administration policy toward gays in the military. Democrats controlled Congress throughout President Carter's tenure, but his relations with Congress, even his fellow Democrats, were famously prickly.
The first President Bush and President Reagan had to deal with opposition control of one or both houses of Congress throughout their terms. Both administrations faced several special counsel investigations.
The current President Bush had a Democratic-controlled Senate for less than two years, after Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., left the GOP in May 2001 and until Republicans regained control in the 2002 elections. If Bush wins a second term in 2004, many political analysts predict he'll be presiding over unified government again.
Hess says that favorable landscape gives Bush an opening for the sort of fundamental policy changes made by such consequential presidents as LBJ and Franklin Roosevelt. Bush's grand ambitions include a new national security policy of pre-emption against foreign threats, the creation of individual investment accounts in Social Security and more tax cuts.
Veterans of the Clinton administration are wistful when they consider the contrast.
"There were countless investigations and we ended up consuming enormous resources that otherwise would have been spent on trying to move the president's agenda forward," says John Podesta, former White House chief of staff. The Bush team has a big advantage, he says: "I don't think the bloodhounds will be out."