White House under a scope

At least six inquiries begun or extended since Democrats took over Congress

May 21, 2007|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- White House officials and top-level appointees throughout the executive branch are struggling to cope with the most intensive oversight of an administration in a decade.

At least a half-dozen investigations have been launched or extended since Democrats took over Congress this year, including high-profile reviews of the firings of U.S. attorneys and the activities of political adviser Karl Rove's office. Administration figures such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been subpoenaed, although Bush aides say Rice will not testify as scheduled next month.

The White House seems unsure how to respond, said Paul Light, a professor at New York University who previously headed the governmental studies program at the Brookings Institution.

Agencies are suffering and morale is low, he said.

"This is, to me, part of the lame-duck problem for President Bush," Light said. "He has very little political capital left. He can't spend too much of it on these particular scandals without highlighting their importance, so right now I think they are confused and quiet."

The inquiries push an already defensive White House that is grappling with the Iraq war and sinking approval ratings even further back on its heels.

"Congress is certainly feeling its oats," said Jan Baran, a veteran Washington lawyer who was general counsel to the Republican National Committee during the previous Bush administration. "Some very experienced chairmen like [California Democrat Henry A.] Waxman and [Michigan's John D.] Dingell have not been up in batting practice with subpoenas for several years. They kind of like the feel of the swing, and so they are at it again."

The Justice Department is fielding endless questions on the firings of at least eight U.S. attorneys, and congressional investigators have been grilling Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and trying to determine Rove's role.

Officials in the Education Department are under suspicion of having conflicts of interest in a student-loan scandal. The General Services Administration and more than a dozen other agencies are under scrutiny for a series of briefings, provided by Rove's staff, on the chances of Republicans making gains in 2008.

Agencies are grappling with growing requests for information, from Democratic committee chairmen and from the investigatory arm of Congress, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. The GAO has begun seeing an increased number of requests for audits and evaluations, agency officials say, now that congressional committees have beefed up their staffs since the election.

In the first three months of 2007, GAO officials were asked to testify on government activities 95 times, compared with 33 occasions during the same period in 2005, and 30 times in 2003 - when Congress was controlled by Republicans.

"I'm not going to say it impairs our ability to do what we are here to do, which is to lead the government on policy, but it has come at considerable time and cost," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto, referring to requests from the House oversight committee.

Aware that last year's elections could precipitate such a response from Democrats, the White House revamped its legal shop. Bush hired Fred Fielding to replace Harriet E. Miers as counsel to the president. Fielding handled similar matters as a lawyer in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, developing a reputation as a pragmatist who avoids fights where possible.

Since his arrival in January, Fielding has hired eight lawyers - some of them for new positions, others filling vacancies - bringing the counsel's office to 22 attorneys, said Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman.

Under his direction, the White House has dug in more than many expected when faced with congressional requests. It is refusing, for example, to allow Rove and Miers to testify before committees looking into the U.S. attorney firings. It is threatening to invoke claims of executive privilege if challenged in court.

"They are not going to unilaterally forfeit constitutional powers that they believe are vested in the president of the United States, any more than Congress unilaterally forfeits its constitutional prerogatives," Baran said.

Trent Duffy, a former deputy press secretary for Bush, acknowledged that the number of investigations "creates more work," but said "volume of work is part of life at the White House."

With players experienced in divided government - such as Fielding and Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten - the White House is steeled to hold its ground, he said.

"There's no amount of investigation or harassment or whatever you want to call it that is going to dilute this White House's view" of executive branch power, Duffy said.

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