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WASHINGTON -- Congress' investigative arm Friday dropped its lawsuit against Vice President Dick Cheney over the administration's energy policy, a decision that scholars said could significantly weaken the legislature's ability to check executive power.
The General Accounting Office, which investigates the executive branch for Congress, said it would not appeal a December federal court ruling that said the GAO could not force Cheney to turn over information about which people and groups met with the Bush administration's energy task force. The GAO's decision to drop the suit, made under pressure from Republicans after they won majorities in both houses of Congress in November, ends a dispute between the two branches of government that has spanned nearly two years.
The decision, hailed by the White House and decried by Democrats and advocates of open government, came despite the GAO's earlier worries that accepting defeat in the case would cripple its ability to oversee the executive branch. Though the court ruling's reach is unclear, many lawyers have interpreted it as stripping the GAO of its ability to go to court to enforce its demands for executive branch information.
"Despite GAO's conviction that the district court's decision was incorrect, further pursuit of the (energy task force) information would require investment of significant time and resources over several years," Comptroller General David Walker, head of the GAO, said in a statement.
Walker settled for delivering a scolding to the administration.
"While we have decided not to pursue this matter further in the courts, we hope that the administration will do the right thing and fulfill its obligations when it comes to disclosures to GAO, the Congress, and the public, not only in connection with this matter but all matters in the future," he said.
Walker also maintained the "court's decision is confined to the unique circumstances posed by this particular case and does not preclude GAO from filing suit on a different matter involving different facts and circumstances in the future."
But Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said the GAO decision has large implications.
"President Bush and Vice President Cheney have an extreme and relentless executive-centered conception of American government and it plays out every day, and there are dozens of fronts in this effort to strengthen the presidency," he said. "Power naturally gravitates to the presidency in times of uncertainty, but people are going to question putting all of our trust in an unfettered president."
The administration also has skirmished with Congress over access to information about intelligence matters, the military, environmental decisions and the records of judicial nominees.
The GAO's decision lowers the heat, but does not extinguish, the political fire stoked by Democrats who have sought to portray the Bush administration as unduly influenced by the energy industry. A lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club environmental group and Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, seeking details on Cheney-led meetings of the energy task force is still in court.
Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch said the public deserves "straight answers . . . not secrecy, closed-door meetings and coverups."
The Cheney case centered on whether the GAO could demand to know who met with the interagency task force, chaired by Cheney, that wrote Bush's energy policy. Democrats had argued Big Business was having too much influence in the process. The task force's efforts generated comprehensive energy legislation that Bush submitted to Congress in mid 2001. It included a controversial proposal to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. And critics said the bill generally tilted too much toward increasing energy production rather than improving conservation efforts.
The bill died last year when negotiators for the GOP-run House and the then-Democratic led Senate could not reach agreement on a compromise.
When Cheney refused to reveal who met with the task force, the GAO went to court for the first time in its 81-year history.
In court, the GAO argued a loss would "be extremely damaging to the General Accounting Office or fatal to its ability to perform functions that it has in the past for Congress and the public." It argued that Cheney's position, if accepted, would be "literally devastating to the General Accounting Office's ability to obtain any information from the executive branch under any circumstances."
A Supreme Court defeat could have set a precedent that would hamper GAO for decades, said John Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
"By walking away from a district court defeat, GAO lives to fight another day," Pitney said.
The White House Friday praised Walker's decision as a benefit to executive deliberations.
"We're pleased because of the important principle at stake, which is ensuring that the president and the vice president are able to receive unvarnished advice," spokeswoman Claire Buchan said.
People who have discussed the matter with the GAO said Walker felt heavy pressure from GOP leaders to drop the case, which had the support of committee chairmen in the Senate when Democrats controlled that chamber.