Ridge's Refusal to Testify Irks Lawmakers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the director of homeland security for President Bush, Tom Ridge oversees one of government's fastest-growing sectors at a time of intense interest in bolstering public safety. Not surprisingly, Congress has been clamoring to quiz him.

But unlike other top government officials who appear regularly on Capitol Hill to update lawmakers about their activities, Ridge has turned down repeated requests to testify--a decision that has sparked increasing anger among congressional Democrats and some Republicans.

This week, the dispute led to a heated exchange between the White House and Congress. Bush asserted executive "prerogative," an argument that had echoes of Vice President Dick Cheney's refusal to provide lawmakers information about the private consultations he conducted in devising the administration's energy policy last year.

That standoff has resulted in a lawsuit filed by Congress' investigative office. And the flap over Ridge is the latest example of what some see as a White House that prefers to play it close to the vest in providing Congress information on matters ranging from pressing policy issues to contingency plans for a "shadow government" in case Washington is attacked.

Analysts say White House aides such as Ridge who are not subject to Senate confirmation traditionally have been shielded from requests to testify. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice and chief economic advisor Lawrence B. Lindsey, for example, do not appear at formal hearings on Capitol Hill.

But Bush's position may have as much to do with practical politics as legal principles.

In keeping Ridge off the Capitol Hill stage, the analysts say, Bush is seeking to maintain tight control over the still-developing homeland security campaign. He is also, in a larger sense, attempting to set limits on congressional oversight of his administration.

"The whole notion is, 'Hey, I'm in charge. I have my advisors, I'll make my decisions and we'll move on,' " said Thomas E. Mann, a presidential and congressional scholar at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.

Lawmakers insist they have a right to know more about what has become a federal priority. Bush has asked for $37.7 billion for homeland security in the coming year, nearly double the current budget of $19.5 billion.

In rebuffing congressional requests for Ridge to defend the proposal before Congress, Bush risks alienating powerful lawmakers from both parties who have their own ideas about a domestic issue that potentially touches every community in America.

If Bush prevails, it would be a victory in his effort to bend a divided Congress to his will. But Mann, like other analysts, questioned whether the strategy is "tenable politically."

On Friday, Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee, sent Bush a letter urging him to reconsider his position.

Other lawmakers have chimed in.

"This is not minor," said Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.). Istook, the chairman of the House panel that oversees funding for the White House, is usually a strong Bush backer, but homeland security policy "involves billions of taxpayer dollars. More importantly, it involves millions of lives."

Istook aired his complaint in a hearing Thursday in which another White House official, budget director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., was being grilled on the Bush spending plan for the coming fiscal year.

Unlike Ridge, Daniels holds a job subject to Senate confirmation. Senior officials in that category, both Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers, testify before congressional committees all the time.

So do many hundreds, even thousands, of other people in any given Congress. Many are private citizens. Some work for the executive branch in positions that are not subject to Senate confirmation. First Lady Laura Bush briefed the House Education and Workforce Committee on Thursday about teaching issues (though her public appearance was not described as a formal hearing). A House Appropriations subcommittee also heard that day from Phil Larsen, a special assistant to the president for management and administration, whose appointment was not Senate-confirmed.

Often, the testimony is simply a media spectacle orchestrated by lawmakers. But in recent decades it also has become an increasingly integral part of the government operations. Congress has become ever more assertive in questioning administration officials about how federal dollars are spent.

At the news conference he held Wednesday, Bush sought to explain his position on why Ridge had not been sent to Capitol Hill hearings. "That's part of the prerogative of the executive branch of government, and we hold that very dear," Bush said.

Bush administration officials note that congressional leaders have been briefed privately by Ridge--and the president himself--on domestic security issues.

"He's consulting with Congress, like other members of the president's staff," said Ridge's spokesman, Gordon Johndroe.

Ridge, 56, a former Pennsylvania governor and House member, was named to the newly created White House post five months ago. A central player in the federal response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he is coordinating a massive campaign to shore up the nation's defenses against terrorism.

Considering the sky-high approval ratings Bush has received for his leadership of the war on terrorism, the public may not quarrel with his position on the testimony issue. But that doesn't mean it is risk-free.

"There are a lot of potential political costs to something like this," said Joel D. Aberbach, a UCLA political scientist. "I would assume that many Republicans [and] Democrats are probably uncomfortable seeing the role of Congress trivialized."

Senate Democrats, in particular, are lashing out at the no-testimony policy. Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) this week suggested that Congress could pass a resolution seeking Ridge to testify, or even haul him up to Capitol Hill with a subpoena. Those are unlikely scenarios, but they show the depth of congressional resentment.

On Friday, Sens. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.)--the top members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee--said they believe Ridge should accede to the requests.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), another who has sought Ridge's testimony, noted that Ridge in recent months had taken public questions from reporters and mayors--"virtually everybody except Congress. I think it's rather strange. He's going to be in charge of a very significant effort that costs a great deal of money."

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