In 1997, the Senate Government Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., held hearings to investigate the many fund-raising abuses propagated by then-President Clinton and Republicans during the 1996 elections.
In response to the investigation, the Clinton administration released the names of those who attended a long list of "coffees" and other fund-raising-related events designed to keep the Democratic National Committee and Clinton/Gore in the money.
Now, Democrats in Congress are asking the Bush administration to supply similar information. Toward that end, the General Accounting Office has requested the names of those who attended meetings of the National Energy Policy Development Group, commonly known as Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force. Because Cheney isn't budging on turning over that information, Comptroller General David Walker, a former Reagan administration official, is preparing to sue the White House.
The worst part about the Bushies' stonewalling -- unless they have something illegal to hide -- is that it's bad politics.
The Bush administration could point out that there were questions as to the legality of the Clinton coffees, but not so with the Cheney task force. Reps. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., and Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., have not charged that Cheney may have broken the law. Dingell and Waxman have sent the GAO on a political mission to answer the embarrassing question: "What process did the NEPDG use to develop the national energy policy?"
Cheney spokesperson Jennifer Millerwise said it's a matter of principle, and "when you focus on the principle, the politics will take care of itself."
Maybe in heaven, but not in Washington.
The Bush League should have learned from Clintonia that trying to put off disclosure only prolongs the pain. Instead of a couple of big stories about the administration's embarrassing ties with energy biggies such as Enron, the administration's pucker approach results in one embarrassing revelation after another. Witness yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle story about an April memo Enron Chairman Ken Lay gave to Cheney as Lay lobbied for energy policies favorable to Enron.
Defending the stonewalling, Cheney aide Mary Matalin wrote in USA Today this week, "What's at stake here is the ability of the president and vice president to solicit advice from anybody they want without having to make it public."
Ahem. That statement might make you think that if Cheney doesn't resist, citizens might clam up when the White House calls. But it's not potential advisers that Cheney and company seek to protect. Corporate suits aren't the ones who are afraid to say that they wooed White House officials. It's the White House that wants to keep the courtships private.
The worst of it is, by being coy, the White House undermines its credibility in the one area where it has a solid argument. The GAO's Walker says he only wants to know "who met with whom, about what, when, where and how much did it cost."
Actually, the GAO requested "minutes or notes." That goes too far. The public is best served when policymakers feel free to brainstorm, as opposed to fearing that any comment might invite intense scrutiny. But in August, Walker took back the request for meeting minutes and notes "as a matter of comity." He still wants names and dates, however.
The public had a right to know that Clintonia was holding big-money events at the White House and with whom. By the same token, voters have a right to know to whom the White House turns when a task force with 10 Cabinet-rank members works on energy policy.
That's why Thompson told CNN, "Let's get everything out and get it over with."
Fair is fair, and openness is not the duty of one party only.
If the answer to the GAO's request for names is embarrassing, the reply should not be a cover-up. The correct response is a change in policy.