At her weekly press conference on Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gave several instances of the White House being less than forthright recently on important issues. First, there was the prison-abuse scandal; the administration withheld information from Congress until the day it was going to be aired on 60 Minutes II. Pelosi also learned through the media that Ahmad Chalabi was on the Defense Department's payroll up until last month. (And Pelosi should be no stranger to intelligence issues; she sat on the House Intelligence Committee until becoming minority leader about 18 months ago and still receives some intelligence reports because of her leadership position.)
Keeping information from Congress and other government agencies is nothing new to this White House, however. Going further back in President Bush's term, many lawmakers -- both Republicans and Democrats -- complained that they learned more from the media than from intelligence briefings on the Hill after the Sept. 11 attacks. The administration's secrecy in dealing with the 9-11 commission led former Sen. Bob
Kerrey to threaten to quit the panel in February. And, of course, there was Vice President Cheney's secret energy panel, which the General Accounting Office -- the investigative branch of Congress -- unsuccessfully sued to learn more about.
The White House didn't share all relevant information with Congress about the real costs of the prescription drug bill, even though the interests of millions of Americans were at stake -- not only those of seniors who buy prescription drugs but also those of their
children, many of whom pay for their parents' expensive medication. And it didn't reveal that the "tax cuts" Congress passed in 2001 and 2003 are actually likely to lead to tax increases, as is shown by a new study from the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Households earning less than $76,400 a year will "give back all of their tax cut and more," House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer said Wednesday. "At the same time, investment in important programs that these same Americans depend on will be reduced."
Secrecy is necessary for presidents; we, and Congress, simply don't have the need or the time to know everything they know. But it's important that presidents view secrecy as a privilege and not use it unnecessarily, just as it's important that they don't mislead us. The reason that Congress has oversight responsibilities is because it's assumed that
presidents aren't always going to be upfront.
This administration has proved the need for congressional oversight many times over. Days after the prison-abuse scandal broke and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld evasively answered questions from Congress, Bush praised him for doing a "superb job."
The fact that administration officials are often less than helpful when Congress performs its oversight duties and the fact that Republican lawmakers often give the White House a free pass is something for voters to think about this fall.
Another reason secrecy is generally bad policy is that the information usually leaks out anyway. Washington is not a town that can keep a secret, and a constant drip is worse than getting all of the bad news out in one day's news cycle. Bush showed that he understood this when he acknowledged the details of his DUI arrest as soon as the story broke, days before the 2000 presidential election. But on matters of real importance, Bush has shown he believes it'sbetter to fudge the facts and just hope that everyone forgets about it later on.
That's not a bad strategy, what with much of the press failing to dig deep into the administration's actions or keep track of Bush's misstatements. At least one Democrat, however, is keeping a record. On her website, Rep. Jan Schakowsky posts "The Bush Administration Misstatement of the Day." Last week, for example, Bush said he didn't "remember having any extensive conversations with [Chalabi]. … I don't remember anybody walking into my office saying, Chalabi says this is the way it's going to be in Iraq." But on "Meet the Press" in February, Bush recalled that "right here in the Oval Office I sat down with … Chalabi" and talked about the future of Iraq.
It's too much to hope that the administration would learn that it's better to be honest than try to keep secrets; we're at the end, not the beginning, of Bush's four years in office, after all. So if the administration won't change, it's time for voters to change the administration. Four more years of secrets and lies is simply too high a price to pay.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.