Bush asks for trouble by snubbing senators

March 06, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Shovelful by shovelful, the Bush administration is digging itself a deeper hole in its relations with Congress by playing the executive privilege and secrecy cards.

The latest example is the refusal of the White House to permit Tom Ridge, the director of homeland security, to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee next month on the president's budget request for $38 billion to make the country safer from terrorist attacks.

The stated ground, as in the refusal to release documents sought by Congress regarding the secret meetings of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force last year, is the need to preserve confidentiality between the president and his chief administration advisers.

Heads of departments and other Cabinet members routinely testify before Congress on the business of their agencies. But Mr. Ridge is not a Cabinet member, although many critics think he should be. Without stature on a par with Cabinet members, these critics say, he has been frustrated getting cooperation from them because each agency head protects his own turf.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and the ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, wrote to Mr. Ridge, saying, "You are the single executive branch official with the responsibility to integrate the many complex functions of the various federal agencies in one formulation and the execution of homeland defense programs. Your views and insights on the policies necessary to meet these objectives are critical to the committee and the nation."

In reply, Mr. Ridge's spokeswoman, Susan Neely, replied that "Ridge's job is to make recommendations to the president and the president has spoken."

But Mr. Byrd and Mr. Stevens are not likely to swallow that. Notably, they already have support for getting Mr. Ridge to appear from another prominent Republican, Richard Shelby of Alabama, the ranking minority member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "He is the homeland security czar," Mr. Shelby told The New York Times. "I agree with Senators Byrd and Stevens that he should appear."

If Mr. Ridge's job description as a presidential adviser will be used to shelter him from congressional interrogation on the job he's doing, it invites an outcry from Capitol Hill. The focus of that outcry should be that either he is given Cabinet stature subject to the same scrutiny department secretaries have to face or that he is told to testify.

Important members of Congress already are steaming about a growing sense that Mr. Bush, accused of being a unilateralist in foreign policy, would like to conduct the war on terrorism without full consultation with Congress, whose lawful function is to provide the money required.

Putting Mr. Ridge under wraps is particularly ironic. When he was appointed homeland security director shortly after Sept. 11, the administration seemed to lose no opportunity to trot him out front and center as the point man and spokesman for the domestic aspects of prosecuting the war.

But his performance in that function left something to be desired, particularly in the uncertainty the administration conveyed about possible further terrorist attacks. He soon was pulled back from that role, leaving him to focus on the central task of coordinating all aspects of homeland defense in which various agencies have a role.

Republican Rep. William Thornberry of Texas, who has been urging a consolidation of federal functions on border security into a new agency that would be headed by Mr. Ridge, says he has no problem with Mr. Ridge not testifying on grounds of his presidential advisory role. But he says he remains concerned that the homeland security director does not have the tools and authority to achieve the necessary cooperation among involved agencies.

The White House decision to snub the Senate Appropriations Committee by denying it Mr. Ridge's views is certainly not going to help the contentious climate building toward the administration on consultation about the war. Complaints from congressional Democrats is one thing; with Republicans joining in, the White House is asking for trouble.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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