Congress Needs To Know What Ridge Has To Say

29 March 2002

By Stentor Danielson

President Bush is doing quite a job of making Congress fight to keep some parity in the balance of powers among the branches of the federal government. The administration waited until the eve of a court ordered deadline to release documents (still heavily edited) describing the meetings that the energy policy task force held as it prepared the nation's energy policy. It's clear why the administration wanted to keep the records secret - the task force met with 20 energy companies, but no citizen or environmental groups (perhaps on the assumption that the way the nation meets its energy needs has no impact on its citizens or environment).

Bush has drawn his next line of defense at the $38 billion he requested for homeland security. He has made it clear that Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, who will administer the spending of that money, will not testify to Congress, which is responsible for allocating it. Under increasing pressure from Congressional leaders who have this idea that the legislature should know how the money it controls will be spent, Ridge offered a compromise plan earlier this week that was based on informal briefings to Congress. Congressional leaders were understandably skeptical about a plan that seems calculated to dodge tough questions about the nation's security spending. If Ridge intends to be as forthcoming in these informal sessions as he would be in formal testimony, why stick to his anti-testimony stance?

In a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Ridge said of his compromise plan "I believe it will meet your needs and avoid the setting of a precedent that could undermine the constitutional separation of powers and the long-standing traditions and practices of both Congress and the executive branch." In reality, anything less than full compliance with Congress's requests for information would undermine the separation of powers by allowing too much control to accumulate in the hands of the executive branch.

The "long-standing traditions" to which Ridge refers are the governmental customs that declare that Congress may demand testimony only from Cabinet members, whereas Ridge is simply an "advisor" to the President. However, in Ridge's case the distinction is grasping at semantics. The office of Director of Homeland Security is described as a "Cabinet-level" post, and Ridge enjoys a level of influence in Washington most comparable to bona fide Cabinet members such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Indeed, the post must be important for Bush to yank Ridge from the governorship of Pennsylvania to fill it, especially after Ridge declined to be considered as Bush's running mate in 2000 (despite being one of the top candidates) in order to stay in the Keystone State.

One wonders what Ridge and Bush fear will come out in the Congressional testimony. The pervasive secrecy of the administration - from the illegal withholding of Regan-era documents to hobbling the Freedom of Information Act - raises understandable suspicions that the executive branch's closets contain more skeletons than the Smithsonian's dinosaur exhibit. The only way to clear those suspicions is to make the government's dealings as transparent as possible.

Outside oversight is vital to insure that the Homeland Security budget is used for legitimate security needs - and these certainly exist. In fact, the existence of a real threat makes it all the more important that Congress not simply write the administration a check.

If the proposed $38 billion of spending is necessary and justifiable, the administration should be willing to defend that case. And Ridge of all people should be qualified and unafraid to make the argument for the spending he will be overseeing. But if the spending is not justifiable, Congress has a pressing need to know. Though our national legislature has a dismal record for spending wisely and efficiently, their oversight is more trustworthy than a simple "just trust us" from the administration.

Ridge has his supporters in Congress, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "I'm not sure that the adviser to the president ought to be grilled by Congress, because I think he owes the president his best information, his best knowledge," Hastert said on Fox News Sunday. It remains unclear how sharing that information with Congress would impair Ridge's ability to advise Bush.

Luckily, this is not a partisan issue. Ridge cannot count on most of his fellow Republicans to look the other way while he directs the security efforts of the more than 80 agencies he coordinates.

Bush seems to be taking his high popularity ratings as a mandate to run the nation, particularly with respect to the struggle against terrorism, as he pleases. Congress is right to hold the administration accountable for its actions. Hiding behind the flimsy screen of executive privilege does little to bolster the trust of the American people or to improve his ability to work with those pesky other branches of government.

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