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Published June 21, 2024

Cheney, White House must bow to GAO request

Will the members of the Privy Council please report to the White House?

In the days when English kings ruled with absolute and often oppressive power, an elite group of royal advisers fortunate enough to have the monarch’s confidence gathered in secret to decide policy, forge alliances, set taxes and dispense final judgment in the most important legal disputes.

Conspicuously absent from those meetings were the common people who would be governed by the policies, fight the wars, pay the taxes and live under the harsh rules of English law.

Now, an American head of state is asserting the authority to return to such a system of unaccountable elites playing their irresponsible power games.

In the first case of its kind in U.S. history, the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative and enforcement arm, announced Tuesday it will sue Vice President Dick Cheney for refusing to release the names of energy industry executives – including leaders of now-defunct Enron – who advised the president last year on the nation’s energy policy. Cheney has rejected repeated GAO requests for documents and notes describing the substance of those meetings.

Cheney and President George W. Bush have both said the GAO’s request would destroy their ability to hold confidential advisory meetings and obtain “unvarnished” outside policy recommendations.

But “unvarnished” opinions are exactly what a president should avoid – in fact, should be prevented from soliciting – when “unvarnished” connotes policy advice for which the adviser intends never to be held accountable.

The United States has a president, not a king. The difference between the two is that a king has all-encompassing authority that can only be checked by armed force, while a president has limited authority and is held accountable by elections. But if that popular accountability is to be preserved, the people must know who has their president’s ear and what advice those privileged few have given.

Enron executives have access to the president in ways the average citizen does not, but every American is affected by the energy policies those meetings produce. The White House must therefore disclose the content of those discussions to allow public opinion, congressional action and election returns to check the influence of corporate elites.

Particularly when the nation’s energy policy appears to have been based on advice from the leaders of a now-bankrupt company, the American people are entitled to know who recommended particular policy decisions and to exercise, through their representatives in Congress, their right to control their chief executive’s decisions.

The bridge from English kings and nobles meeting in secret to the American tradition of a publicly answerable policy process was designed by John Locke’s legendary writings, which require that a just government “have one rule for rich and poor, for the favourite at Court, and the countryman at plough.” A free nation’s laws, Locke wrote, “ought to be designed for no other end ultimately but the good of the people.”

Privy Councils and smoke-filled rooms are equally abhorrent to this nation’s Constitution. The GAO deserves every American’s support as it reins in the White House’s refusal to respect its true masters.

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