Muckraker: Grist on Politics

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was set to vote today to hold U.S. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson and Susan Dudley of the White House Office of Management and Budget in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over documents related to recent controversial decisions on smog and California’s request for an emissions waiver. But it appears their friend in the White House swooped in this morning to block the committee’s subpoenas for those documents, claiming executive privilege.

Oversight Chair Henry Waxman postponed the contempt vote so the committee can determine if the claim of executive privilege is valid. But Waxman says that “to date I have not seen a valid instance of their executive privilege,” reports TPM Muckraker. They’ve also got this statement from Waxman at today’s committee meeting:

I don’t think we’ve had a situation like this since Richard Nixon was president — when the President of the United States may have been involved in acting contrary to law and the evidence that would determine that question for Congress, in exercising our oversight, is being blocked by an assertion of executive privilege. I would hope and expect this administration would not be making this assertion without a valid basis for it, but to date I have not seen a valid instance of their executive privilege.

The primary reason those documents were being subpoenaed is to evaluate what level of influence President Bush has had in EPA decision making in these recent cases. In both cases, the Johnson’s decisions differed significantly from the recommendations of his staff, and according to most accounts came as the result of 11th-hour intervention by the White House. Johnson was called before the committee to testify on May 20, when he evaded all questions about intervention from the executive branch.

Waxman also posted a written statement on today’s intervention on the committee website: “Today’s assertion of executive privilege raises serious questions about Administrator Johnson’s credibility and the involvement of the President.”

Over on Wonk Room, Brad Johnson provides some more context:

This is the fourth time Bush has asserted executive privilege to block Congressional oversight. Last summer he protected Harriet Miers, Sara Taylor, and Karl Rove from testifying before Congress about the US attorneys scandal that brought down Alberto Gonzales. Rove and Gonzales resigned from the White House soon thereafter.

The last time the full Congress found an administration official in contempt was in 1983, against EPA official Rita Lavelle for her cover-up of Dow Chemical’s dioxin poisoning in Midland, Michigan. Twenty-five years later, EPA regional administrator Mary Gade was fired by Johnson when she tried to clean up the pollution.

The Oversight Committee isn’t the only one after Johnson. A few weeks ago, the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming decided to hold off on a contempt vote after reaching an agreement with the White House to obtain requested EPA documents. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has been looking into politicization in the EPA as well because of the smog and California waiver decisions, and is after him for answers on the Gade issue, too.

UPDATE: The Washington Independent says this is the Bush administration’s sixth use of “executive privilege,” and it’s always been “used as a last resort.” It was also used to block the investigation into the friendly fire death of former professional football player and Army Corporal Pat Tillman, and in a 2001 investigation into the FBI corruption scandal that the movie “The Departed” was based on.