Whose government is it anyway? In America the obvious answer is the people whom the government is of, by, and for - as Lincoln said, echoing the ringing prologue to the Wycliffe Bible of almost five centuries before.
If the government is the people's, their representatives in Congress ought to have all the information necessary to carry out Congress's legislative and investigative functions.
Yet various presidents going back to George Washington have at least questioned the right of the people's representatives in Congress to certain presidential information. Now the Reagan administration is tasting the difficulties of trying to thwart congressional inquiry through ''executive privilege.''
First a congressional committee cited Interior Secretary James Watt for contempt for refusing to supply subpoenaed papers. The administration backed down to the extent of letting the papers be examined under limits of place and time. The contempt charges were not pressed.
Now a congressional subcommittee has recommended that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Anne Gorsuch, be cited for contempt by the full Public Works Committee. Her offense was refusing to supply some of the documents subpoenaed for an investigation of the workings of the $1.6 billion ''superfund'' legislation to protect the public from hazardous chemical waste.
It is to be hoped that the withheld papers, along with the many others she agreed to supply, will be provided as in the Watt case, though preferably without the effort to put strings on them.
Withholding information from Congress is a no-win situation for any administration. This has been the general experience ever since the Eisenhower administration claimed ''uncontrolled discretion'' in withholding information, even by administration members below the president.
Leave aside legal interpretations such as that, even if executive privilege is found constitutional, it covers only communications from the president not to the president. Leave aside the Supreme Court ruling during the Nixon years that some form of executive privilege is constitutional, though it did not allow Mr. Nixon to withhold his infamous tapes.
Whatever the impression left by such matters, the overriding impression left by the withholding of information is that the information must be embarrassing or damaging and has to be covered up.
Note that Congress does not claim this to be so in the case of Mrs. Gorsuch's refusal to release information which she says would seriously jeopardize the government's ability to enforce the law.
All the subcommittee claims is that it needs the information to do its job of seeing whether its laws are being properly carried out. The reason is that it has found other evidence suggesting doubts.
For one thing it sees a possibility of companies known to have dumped hazardous waste not being charged their fair share for cleaning it up.
For another, there is the possibility of offenders - not officially known as such - being given contracts to profit from cleaning up what they themselves have dumped. Some may even continue the cycle by illegally dumping the ''cleaned up'' waste.
Such questions will linger as long as Congress cannot tell the people it represents that it has been given all the information it needs to do their work for them.