GAO Authority Undermined

The recent decision by the General Accounting Office (GAO) to drop its lawsuit against Vice President Dick Cheney likely further weakens the agency’s ability to get information from an already overly secretive administration. The GAO lawsuit set an important precedent as the first time in GAO’s 81 years that the agency sued the Executive Branch in order to obtain information. This raised the struggle for transparency and accountability in government to a new level. Unfortunately, the decision to drop the case will likely strengthen the administration’s resolve to widely withhold information from GAO specifically, but also more broadly from Congress and the general public. GAO filed the suit at the request of House Democrats, in order to obtain records from secret meetings of the Energy Task Force. This task force was charged with the examination and formulation of the nation’s energy policy. Initial concerns arose around the involvement of large Bush campaign contributors and industry leaders, particularly because of Cheney and President Bush’s strong ties to the energy industry. A GAO press statement issued February 7, 2003, expressed disappointment over a December decision by Bush-appointed U.S. District Court Judge John Bates, which declared that GAO lacked sufficient grounds for the inquiry and that disclosure of the information would violate the separation of powers. The GAO asserted that the ruling was incorrect and that the Judge misapplied a past Supreme Court decision. Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) commented, “It is regrettable, but not surprising, that a newly appointed federal judge chose to look the other way.” Apparently, following the court ruling, as GAO considered appealing, immense pressure was placed on GAO to drop the lawsuit. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, met with GAO Comptroller General David Walker earlier in the year, and sources have reported that sharp cuts in the GAO $440 million budget were threatened if the lawsuit was pursued further. The long-term implications of this decision by Walker are extremely troubling. GAO is usually perceived as an unbiased, influential body in the midst of a politically charged environment. House Democrats believe GAO will no longer be able to fulfill their duty as a nonpartisan investigative branch of Congress. It is possible that in the future sensitive information might be shielded if permission from the majority party is not granted. Dropping the lawsuit undermines GAO’s authority to gather information and investigate effectively. The fact that GAO caved in to financial threats also decreases its credibility in challenging the Administration in the future. It is highly likely that while the Energy Task Force has been the highest profile information that GAO has been denied, it will not be the last.
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