Threats by Republicans to cut the General Accounting Office (GAO) budget influenced its decision to abandon a lawsuit against Vice President Dick Cheney, The Hill has learned.
Sources familiar with high-level discussions at the GAO said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, met with GAO Comptroller General David Walker earlier this year and unambiguously pressured him to drop the suit or face cuts in his $440 million budget.
Walker yesterday acknowledged meeting Stevens, but denied the senator threatened to cut funding for the investigative agency. However, he confirmed that such threats were made, although he said they came from a lawmaker not in a position to deliver on them and did not occur recently.
The decision to drop the lawsuit has raised concerns that Congresss all-purpose auditor has sacrificed its traditional role as an independent arm of Congress.
I met with Stevens in his capacity of president pro tempore, the comptroller said: In the conversation with Sen. Stevens there was no assertion or inference [of funding cuts]. He didnt even raise the issue of appropriations.
Walker did say, however, that several lawmakers have threatened in the past year to cut agency funding if it persisted with the controversial lawsuit. He also said the budget threat was among a number of factors that tipped his Feb. 7 decision to halt litigation. A GAO staff member and several Stevenss aides attended the meeting.
Stevenss offices were closed at press time and neither the senator nor his spokeswoman could be reached for comment.
The controversy with Cheney came to a head in December after U.S. District Court Judge John Bates, citing separation of powers, ruled that Walker lacked sufficient grounds to compel Cheney to disclose the records of a White House energy task force that he had headed.
Walker had filed the suit against Cheney in February 2002 at the request of House Democrats. This was the first time in its 81-year history that the GAO, acting in its capacity as the investigative arm of Congress, sued the executive branch to obtain withheld information.
Walker said he initiated all the meetings on Capitol Hill and I did what I thought was right.
Before deciding not to appeal Batess decision, Walker said he met senior Republicans and Democrats in both chambers, and most lawmakers of them urged him not to pursue the matter. He said, I considered all the facts and circumstances and am very comfortable with my decision.
But several House Democratic leaders and key members of the Democratic Caucus have stringently criticized Walkers decision.
I thought it was a bad decision, said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, who along with Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the senior Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, pressed Walker to file the suit last year.
If you have a GOP Congress not interested in exercising the role of oversight, and GAO doesnt act independently of the Congress, there is nobody providing the job of checks and balances called for in our Constitution, said Waxman. This jeopardizes GAOs ability to act independently in the future.
Bates, who was nominated to the bench by the current president, ruled against the GAO because neither a house of Congress nor any congressional committee has issued a subpoena for the disputed information.
By not appealing this ruling, House Democrats argue, GAO will not be able to pursue sensitive information in the future without permission from the majority party.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Walkers decision was a very unfortunate undermining of GAOs independence and effectiveness.
Rep. Bob Matsui (D-Calif.), chair of the House Democrats campaign committee, said, This not only undermines the independence of the GAO, but it also makes it difficult to get information.
With the congressional committees controlled by the Republicans, I think its unlikely youll see GAO pursue something adversarial, and thats a problem, Matsui added. Matsui said he believed that Walker probably faced political pressure to drop the lawsuit.
On the floor of the House last Wednesday, Waxman condemned Walkers decision.
GAO will be able to continue [its] routine work. And if a Republican controlled committee ever urges GAO to pursue a controversial investigation of the Bush administration, GAO may be able to do this. But dont hold your breath.
Walker said that while Republican control of Congress and the White House makes GAO investigations more complicated, it wouldnt affect his judgment. If the GAO is unable to obtain information from the executive branch, Walker said he would ask the appropriate committee of jurisdiction for a subpoena.
In response to allegations that the agencys effectiveness would be diminished, Walker pointed to GAOs annual report, which shows that the agency saved taxpayers $37.7 billion in return for its approximately $440 million budget.
Walker, a former aide to President Reagan who took office in November 1998, is serving a 15-year term.
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