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GAO Drops Appeal, Ending Pursuit of Energy Task Force Records

The General Accounting Office announced Friday that it was dropping its quest for records of Vice President Cheney’s energy task force, ending a two-year-long clash over Congress’ right to conduct oversight of the White House.

The GAO decided not to appeal a December decision by a U.S. District Court to dismiss the investigative agency’s lawsuit, which had aimed to force the vice president to release the records in response to requests from several Hill Democrats.

In a release, GAO said it chose not to appeal the Walker v. Cheney ruling “after thorough review and analysis of the district court’s decision … as well as extensive outreach with congressional leadership and others concerning various policy matters and the potential ramifications of the court’s decision.”

The statement did not extensively elaborate on the reasons for its decision not to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, but it did argue in some detail why the GAO felt that the lower court decisions were wrong and why this precedent would not impede its future investigations.

“Despite GAO’s conviction that the district court’s decision was incorrect, further pursuit of the [task force] information would require investment of significant time and resources over several years,” said the statement, adding that “several private litigants” are currently seeking the same information.

The Bush administration applauded Friday’s development.

“We’re pleased,” said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan. “We believe that there is an important principle at stake, and that principle is that the president and vice president continue to receive the unvarnished advice that is necessary for good decision-making.”

While the GAO’s decision represented a victory for the administration and its desire to keep such information private, the actual legal battle was primarily fought not over the privilege issue but whether the agency has the standing to sue the White House in the first place.

In his December ruling dismissing the lawsuit, Judge John Bates said the case should not be “the setting for such unprecedented judicial action” in the fight between Congress and the White House.

The administration had previously argued that neither the House nor the Senate had issued a formal subpoena for the information and that Congress could not delegate its formal powers of oversight to Comptroller General David Walker. The GAO strongly disagreed with that notion, arguing that it has the statutory authority to act at the request of a Congressional committee.

The original request for the task force records was placed in April 2001 by House Government Reform ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and House Energy and Commerce ranking member John Dingell (D-Mich.). A handful of Senate Democrats, including three who were panel chairmen at the time, later joined in the request.

“I am very disappointed with GAO’s decision not to appeal the court’s ruling,” Waxman said Friday. “This is a tremendous setback for open government. Everyone — even the vice president — should be accountable to the American people.”

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