Waxman to stir debate with transparency subcommittee

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has created a new subcommittee that will tackle decisions made by the Bush administration regarding which government records should be made available to the public.

Waxman has not released his committee’s agenda for this year, and his panel has yet to organize formally, but his plan to create a subcommittee devoted to government transparency foreshadows what is expected to be a contentious debate with the administration over executive branch documents.

“We have legislative jurisdiction over [the Freedom of Information Act] and some of the other issues that relate to openness in government,” Waxman said yesterday.

While former Republican Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) battled the Bush administration in its first term over access to records, the recent GOP chairman, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), largely let the issue drop.

But by creating a new Information Policy, Census and National Archives Committee, Waxman has signaled that he intends to prioritize allowing public access to the inner workings of the administration.

Waxman also plans to form four other new subcommittees by merging and dividing the seven subpanels that existed under Republican control of Government Reform.

They will be called National Security and International Relations; Domestic Policy; Federal Workforce, Post Office and the District of Columbia; and Government Management, Organization and Procurement.

“We’re going to go to five committees and somewhat more equalize the jurisdiction so each subcommittee is a substantial subcommittee in terms of what it has to do,” Waxman said.

Waxman and the Bush administration have tangled previously over access to sensitive White House information. Waxman has supported lawsuits filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to discover the interactions between industry groups and an energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney before the White House unveiled its energy policy.

Waxman also pushed for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate meetings of Cheney’s task force and criticized the GAO comptroller general for failing to appeal a court decision protecting the task force from the probe.

“This is a tremendous setback for open government,” Waxman said at the time.

In the interests of government transparency, in Democrats’ view — or in the interests of political gain, from a Republican perspective — Waxman also could challenge the recent administration practice of reclassifying portions of the National Archives. The administration’s policy of responding to FOIA information requests could also come under scrutiny.

Access to the National Archives has become a touchy political issue in recent years as some documents have the potential to become big stories, such as the January 2001 memo from former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke that warned Bush of the threat posed by al Qaeda.

Democrats and the White House could clash about how to handle sensitive documents from the Reagan era, when key Bush allies, such as James Baker III and John Negroponte, served in high government positions.

During its first term, the Bush administration rewrote a Clinton-administration directive to delay the release of documents that would have become automatically declassified after 25 years.

A new focus on government transparency could put Waxman on a collision course with Cheney, who has made expanding presidential prerogatives and executive privilege one of his top priorities in office.

In 2002, Burton, who then chaired Government Reform, challenged an order by the Bush administration to withhold the publication of communications between former President Reagan and his advisers. But Burton stepped down from the panel because of term limits before he could force the issue to a conclusion.

Waxman’s spokeswoman, Karen Lightfoot, at the time criticized the president’s decision to withhold records from the public realm.

“It is another example of the Bush administration undermining the public’s right to know,” she told The Hill in 2002.