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White House under a scope

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- White House officials and top-level appointees throughout the executive branch are struggling to cope with the most intensive oversight of an administration in a decade.

At least a half-dozen investigations have been launched or extended since Democrats took over Congress this year, including high-profile reviews of the firings of U.S. attorneys and the activities of political adviser Karl Rove's office. Administration figures such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been subpoenaed, although Bush aides say Rice will not testify as scheduled next month.

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The White House seems unsure how to respond, said Paul Light, a professor at New York University who previously headed the governmental studies program at the Brookings Institution.

Agencies are suffering and morale is low, he said.

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"This is, to me, part of the lame-duck problem for President Bush," Light said. "He has very little political capital left. He can't spend too much of it on these particular scandals without highlighting their importance, so right now I think they are confused and quiet."

The inquiries push an already defensive White House that is grappling with the Iraq war and sinking approval ratings even further back on its heels.

"Congress is certainly feeling its oats," said Jan Baran, a veteran Washington lawyer who was general counsel to the Republican National Committee during the previous Bush administration. "Some very experienced chairmen like [California Democrat Henry A.] Waxman and [Michigan's John D.] Dingell have not been up in batting practice with subpoenas for several years. They kind of like the feel of the swing, and so they are at it again."

The Justice Department is fielding endless questions on the firings of at least eight U.S. attorneys, and congressional investigators have been grilling Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and trying to determine Rove's role.

Officials in the Education Department are under suspicion of having conflicts of interest in a student-loan scandal. The General Services Administration and more than a dozen other agencies are under scrutiny for a series of briefings, provided by Rove's staff, on the chances of Republicans making gains in 2008.

Agencies are grappling with growing requests for information, from Democratic committee chairmen and from the investigatory arm of Congress, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. The GAO has begun seeing an increased number of requests for audits and evaluations, agency officials say, now that congressional committees have beefed up their staffs since the election.

In the first three months of 2007, GAO officials were asked to testify on government activities 95 times, compared with 33 occasions during the same period in 2005, and 30 times in 2003 - when Congress was controlled by Republicans.

"I'm not going to say it impairs our ability to do what we are here to do, which is to lead the government on policy, but it has come at considerable time and cost," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto, referring to requests from the House oversight committee.

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Aware that last year's elections could precipitate such a response from Democrats, the White House revamped its legal shop. Bush hired Fred Fielding to replace Harriet E. Miers as counsel to the president. Fielding handled similar matters as a lawyer in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, developing a reputation as a pragmatist who avoids fights where possible.

Since his arrival in January, Fielding has hired eight lawyers - some of them for new positions, others filling vacancies - bringing the counsel's office to 22 attorneys, said Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman.

Under his direction, the White House has dug in more than many expected when faced with congressional requests. It is refusing, for example, to allow Rove and Miers to testify before committees looking into the U.S. attorney firings. It is threatening to invoke claims of executive privilege if challenged in court.

"They are not going to unilaterally forfeit constitutional powers that they believe are vested in the president of the United States, any more than Congress unilaterally forfeits its constitutional prerogatives," Baran said.

Trent Duffy, a former deputy press secretary for Bush, acknowledged that the number of investigations "creates more work," but said "volume of work is part of life at the White House."

With players experienced in divided government - such as Fielding and Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten - the White House is steeled to hold its ground, he said.

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"There's no amount of investigation or harassment or whatever you want to call it that is going to dilute this White House's view" of executive branch power, Duffy said.

For most of its first six years, the Bush administration operated with a Republican-controlled Congress that asked few questions as the White House sought to boost the authority of the executive branch. But with Democrats now in control of Congress, Bush is experiencing some of what President Bill Clinton went through after the GOP took control of Congress in the 1994 elections.

Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, noted at a recent hearing that "I've seen this committee abuse its subpoena power.

"From 1997 to 2002, former Chairman Dan Burton issued 1,052 subpoenas to the Clinton administration and Democratic targets," he said. By comparison, when Republican Tom Davis of Virginia headed the committee for four years during the Bush administration, five subpoenas were issued.

"This committee has lived at two extremes, and neither has served the public well," Waxman said.

After dealing with years of Republican inquiries, the Clinton administration learned to respond quickly to congressional demands, said Glenn F. Ivey, the state's attorney in Prince George's County who was a Democratic counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee.

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"By the end of the Whitewater stuff, if an issue popped up, the Clinton administration would release tens of thousands of pages of documents on anything related to it, and say, 'Have at it,'" Ivey said. "That seems to me to be the best way to go on these. I think the way the Bush administration's handling of this has kind of blown up on them reaffirms that truth."

The pushback by Congress could represent the beginning of a pendulum swing, some observers say. Bush spent much of his first six years in office consolidating and extending the authority of the executive branch, particularly in the area of national security. The White House claimed the right to detain terror suspects in foreign prisons and collect telephone records without permission.

The effort followed a doctrine espoused for decades by Dick Cheney, now the vice president, said Aziz Huq, head of the liberty and national security project at New York University's Brennan Center for Social Justice and co-author of Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror.

"Congress is flexing its muscles in a way that is useful and important, but has a long way to go," Huq said. "Congress hasn't yet plunged into the many areas in which neither it nor the public really know what the administration has been doing for the past six years."

As the leaders of agencies prepare for congressional testimony and comb their files for letters and e-mail, the work of the departments slows, longtime Washington observers say. Top managers become more cautious; decisions are delayed.

"What inevitably happens here is, you have the Democrats who believe in government, who believe in the programs these agencies are tasked with implementing, razing these agencies to find out what has gone on," said Stanley M. Brand, former counsel to the House of Representatives who has represented Democratic clients in congressional inquiries. "And you have the Republicans, who don't particularly believe in government, or any of these programs, perfectly willing and happy to let the Democrats destroy the agency over these inquiries."

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Some have accused Democrats of overreaching.

"The Democrats on Capitol Hill have made it clear: They will stop at nothing short of the entire Republican National Committee playbook for 2008 in their search for documents," said RNC Chairman Mike Duncan in a statement responding to a subpoena he received late last month.

Democrats acknowledge the risk, but insist that they are nowhere near that point.

"The very fact that you have ongoing oversight sends an important message to the executive branch - that they better shape up in terms of how they conduct themselves going forward," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.


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