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Tug of war over executive privilege

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At one time or another, almost every occupant of the White House has tried to keep Congress from prying into presidential affairs.

George Washington refused to let the House of Representatives see presidential papers dealing with a controversial foreign treaty. Andrew Jackson said Congress couldn't have documents detailing negotiations over the shape of Maine. John Tyler denied the House access to reports on fraud perpetrated against the Cherokee Indians.

In more modern times, President Nixon said the Senate had no right to hear his Watergate tapes.

Now President Reagan and Congress are marching toward a ''historical confrontation,'' in the words of one expert, over whether the President has the privilege of keeping secrets from Capitol Hill.

The House, denied some sensitive Environmental Protection Agency papers, has voted to begin criminal proceedings against EPA chief Anne Gorsuch. The White House, in turn, is suing to stop Congress's hand.

As yet there is no talk of compromise. The dispute is likely to become the most serious standoff on this aspect of the balance of powers since the Nixon tape case.

''I feel the issue is of great importance,'' says Harvard professor Raoul Berger, author of a book on presidential claims of executive privilege.

The struggle is basically a wrestling match to determine which branch of government is stronger. The Founding Fathers, says Professor Berger, intended that Congress be the more muscular - but, over the years, presidents have often successfully eluded requests for information from Capitol Hill.

George Washington, for instance: In 1796, the House asked President Washington for his correspondence with US diplomats who negotiated the controversial Jay Treaty with Britain. Washington refused, on the grounds that delicate diplomatic negotiations require as much secrecy as possible. The House debated this insult for a month, but took no action.

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