With a contempt of Congress vote looming by Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-CA) House Oversight Committee, President Bush asserted executive privilege this morning to block the committee’s subpoenas for documents relating to the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to reject California’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to override scientific recommendations on ozone standards.
Waxman’s committee had scheduled the 10 am business meeting to hold contempt votes for EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson and White House Office of Management and Budget regulatory administrator Susan Dudley. On May 20, Johnson appeared before the committee, without the subpoenaed documents and evading questions about Bush’s involvement.
Stephen Johnson has been compared to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for his mishandling of the EPA. Susan Dudley and her husband Brian Mannix, an EPA administrator, are products of the Mercatus Center, a right-wing pro-industry think tank.
UPDATE: From TPMMuckaker, Waxman’s blistering response:
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.
UPDATE II: Waxman’s written statement from the committee website: “Today’s assertion of executive privilege raises serious questions about Administrator Johnson’s credibility and the involvement of the President.”
This is the fourth case — and third Congressional investigation — Bush has impeded by asserting executive privilege. He invoked the privilege repeatedly in the US attorneys scandal that brought down Alberto Gonzales last summer: to prevent Josh Bolten from turning over documents; and to protect Harriet Miers and Sara Taylor and Karl Rove and Scott Jennings from testimony. Rove, Gonzales, and Jennings resigned from the White House soon thereafter. Considering the assertions of executive privilege improperly made, this February the House voted to hold Miers and Bolten in contempt of Congress, but Attorney General Michael Mukasey declined to investigate.
Bush also claimed executive privilege to block the release of DOJ documents relating to Clinton’s pardons and a 2001 investigation into the FBI corruption scandal fictionalized in “The Departed.” In both cases, the documents were later released. In May 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the DOJ documents were not covered by executive privilege.
Although the administration has resisted turning over documents in several other cases — such as the Pat Tillman investigation and Energy Task Force investigation — executive privilege was not explicitly asserted. Instead it has used what the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press dubbed “quasi-executive privilege,” using phrases like “Executive Branch interests” and the “constitutional duties of the Executive Branch.”
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.
UPDATE III: In an email, Daily Kos contributor Kagro X notes further parallels between today’s scandal and the 1983 EPA scandal: “Reagan’s EPA Administrator, Anne Gorsuch, refused to testify or turn over documents on the advice of White House counsel Fred Fielding.”
Fielding replaced Harriet Miers as Bush’s White House counsel when she resigned last year.
UPDATE IV: Clean Air Watch‘s Frank O’ Donnell writes in to the Wonk Room:
This is basically an admission that the White House did indeed tamper with EPA’s decisions. Executive Privilege only applies to actions taken by the President or his top aides.
It’s a sad commentary on the state of our government. This isn’t a matter involving national security. This is really about a very political White House helping special interests by interfering with an agency’s responsibility to carry out the law.