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GAO’s Lawsuit on Energy Policy Has No Legal Basis, Judge Says

By Neely Tucker
THE WASHINGTON POST -- A federal judge here ruled Monday that the investigative arm of Congress has no legal standing to bring suit against the vice president for refusing to turn over energy policy documents, a major victory for the Bush administration and a blow against congressional oversight of government affairs, scholars and analysts said.

The 40-page opinion by U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, in the suit brought by the comptroller general of the General Accounting Office against Vice President Cheney, ruled that the GAO, which conducts hundreds of investigations into government affairs each year, has no personal or institutional right to bring almost any suit. Analysts said this means the agency might face trouble in enforcing its requests for information from any federal department.

“The case ... engenders a struggle between the political branches that is historically unprecedented and that transcends both the specific information sought and the political identity of the legislative and executive branch players involved,” Bates wrote in dismissing the suit. “This case, in which neither a House of Congress nor any congressional committee has issued a subpoena for the disputed information ... is not the setting for such unprecedented judicial action.”

The ruling was a triumph for the Bush White House, which treated the case as a vehicle for turning back what it has called a generation of congressional encroachment on the executive branch. If the ruling stands, it could severely weaken the GAO, Congress’ investigative arm, and leave a president largely immune from aggressive congressional oversight unless the opposition party is in the majority.

Bates’ ruling also was the second in a one-two punch of legal victories by the White House in its battles against several high-profile suits that seek access to the records of Cheney’s National Energy Policy Development Group. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington indefinitely stayed a lower court order that would have forced the administration Monday to turn over many of the same records the GAO sought, but to a coalition of nongovernmental private groups.

Taken together, the rulings provided vindication for the administration’s position that the records should remain part of a shielded deliberative process, officials said.

“We believe it’s important the president receive unvarnished advice in his decision-making, and the court has supported this,” said a White House official, declining to speak for attribution.

“Allowing the GAO to sue the vice president without legal authority would improperly interfere with the president’s ability to formulate the best possible policies for the American people,” said Barbara Comstock, director of public affairs for the Justice Department.