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Energy-plan lesson: Use task forces at peril

Cheney's energy panel highlight problem of trying to operate behind closed doors.

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At this very moment, hundreds of task forces, commissions, and advisory groups are quietly imparting their collective wisdom to the Bush administration.

Considering everything from who should be awarded a National Science Foundation grant to the future status of Puerto Rico, they hum along, a part of the Washington machinery that gets little attention.

Until, as occasionally happens, critics of administration policy become upset about their methods of operation. In that case, their very existence can become a big problem for the officials they were meant to serve.

For President Bush, the energy task force is the broken gear that's messing up an otherwise exceptionally well-oiled administration. This, after all, is the experienced White House. And Vice President Cheney, who directed the task force, is the most experienced of all, a former congressman who also served three former presidents.

And yet, political observers say Mr. Cheney has fallen into a classic trap for new administrations. In an effort to push forward an ambitious policy goal, indeed, a campaign promise, a high-profile task force was set up. It consulted with those who shared the president's overall views. It operated behind closed doors. And, like President Clinton's healthcare task force, it ran into trouble when those shut out from the process sued to find out what was going on.

"I think this is the mistake of any new administration," says Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton. "You're trying to piece together a quick policy, you're trying to do it as best you can. I think you just forget about the fact that ultimately all that you're doing could come back to haunt you."

While there was no Enron to spur on the critics of First Lady Hillary Clinton's healthcare task force, her group – like Vice President Cheney's – was tackling an issue of major importance. When outsiders began to see the deck was stacked in a certain policy direction, and, not being consulted, felt helpless to do anything about it, they turned to the courts.

That's what's happened again here. This week, the Department of Energy was forced by court order to hand over 11,000 pages of documents to special-interest groups, which sued under the Freedom of Information Act.

EARLY review of the documents indicate that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, a key player in Cheney's task force, met with dozens of energy representatives and campaign contributors, but held no meetings with consumer or environmental groups. Interestingly, the agency's contact with Enron on the energy policy appears to have been minimal.

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