The Bush administration and Congress appear headed toward a legal showdown over whether lawmakers and the public have a right to know details of private policy meetings inside the White House. The heart of the controversy is a clash of wills between Vice President Dick Cheney and the investigative arm of Congress, the General Accounting Office.
Last year, Vice President Cheney was given the job of heading the administration task force on energy policy. The task force meetings were held in private and included representatives from the energy industry, including the now bankrupt Texas-based energy-trading firm Enron.
For months, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has demanded information about the energy task force meetings, especially the names of those who attended. It is part of a GAO probe into whether energy companies exercised improper influence in the energy policy task force.
In two television interviews Sunday, Vice President Cheney said he would continue to defy the requests for information from the GAO. He argues that protecting private discussions inside the White House is an important principle to safeguard now and in the future.
Mr. Cheney told ABC's This Week program that the information request from Congress represents the latest in a series of battles that have gradually weakened the principle of executive privilege, the president's right to keep White House policy conversations private.
"Because the net result of that is to weaken the presidency and the vice presidency," he said. "One of the things that I feel an obligation, and I know that the president does too because we have talked about it, is to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors," he said. "We are weaker today as an institution because of the unwise compromises that have been made over the last 30 to 35 years."
Congressional Democrats are stepping up their demands for information about the energy task force led by Vice President Cheney, especially in light of ties between the Bush administration and the energy firm Enron.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle urged the vice president to release the information during an interview on the CBS program, Face the Nation.
"If this has to be resolved in the courts, I think that may be the only recourse," he said. "The General Accounting Office is on solid ground in demanding that these records be turned over. The American people have a right to know what the facts are. I think the Administration needs to open up, to be willing to be forthcoming with all the information regarding these circumstances."
Political analysts say Vice President Cheney is making an issue out of the GAO request because he is convinced that Congress has chipped away too much of the president's ability to keep candid policy discussions private.
"Cheney has a point in the larger sense," said Norman Ornstein who has written extensively about the presidency as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington. "We have seen an erosion of privacy, an erosion of deliberation, an erosion of executive powers that does go back to the [President Richard] Nixon era in little bits and pieces. A good deal of it took place in the Clinton era, frankly, encouraged by Republican legislators and the independent counsel [special investigators] who insisted on challenging every presidential claim of executive privilege, including privacy with Secret Service agents around."
But Mr. Ornstein and other analysts are also quick to point out the political risks in Mr. Cheney's refusal to provide information to the General Accounting Office.
Some recent opinion polls indicate a majority of Americans do not believe the Bush administration has disclosed everything about its links with the collapsed Enron Corporation. And even some Republicans want Mr. Cheney to release details of his meetings to counter the view that the administration has something to hide in its deliberations on a national energy policy.
"But if you do not let the information out, then the story becomes 'why aren't you letting the information out?' And the vice president's articulate claims that this is a matter of privilege are probably going to be brushed aside in the public discourse," Mr. Ornstein said.
If, as expected, the General Accounting Office takes the vice president to court, it will be the first time that the investigative arm of the Congress sues another government department for non-cooperation. Legal experts predict that a court case could potentially drag on for years.