WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has agreed to allow a Senate committee access to documents involving decisions to roll back several major environmental regulations, avoiding a potential legal confrontation with Congress.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said Friday that the White House has agreed to give his committee's staff free access to the documents although, for now, they cannot be copied or the contends made public.
The documents sought by Lieberman involved a decision by the administration to reconsider regulations on the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water, toxic chemical pollution by mining companies and a requirement barring development of nearly 60 million acres of federal forests.
"We don't know and the public doesn't know who they consulted or relied on in making those decisions," Lieberman said at a news conference announcing the agreement.
Lieberman earlier this week had threatened to subpoena the documents if they were not produced, possibly unleashing a legal and constitutional confrontation with the administration.
"The basic question is who did the Bush administration talk to when they decided to block these regulations," said Lieberman, adding he fears there was consultation with only one side. Environmentalists have charged they were kept generally out of the process and that industry had too much access.
The three agencies involved -- the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency and Agriculture Department -- have said they have been cooperating with the Senate committee.
But Lieberman said until now the agencies refused to make available key memos, e-mails, notes and other documents involved in the decision making by top-level officials.
Lieberman in March sought information connected with the rollback of the three environmental rules, but had largely been stymied when Republicans controlled the committee and the Senate. When Democrats gained the majority and Lieberman became committee chairman, he pressed for the documents and made clear he planned a broader investigation into the matter.
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., the former committee chairman, said Friday he knew little about the agreement, but added, "I'm glad they worked it out."
The EPA's rollback of the arsenic regulation has been widely criticized by environmentalists. EPA Administrator Christie Whitman has said she will tighten the current standard, but not as much as the Clinton administration regulations would have.
The forest rule has been tied up in court. But the administration has not vigorously defended it and has said it is reopening the rule with an eye toward changing it. It also is reconsidering a regulation that would have tightened mining regulations for toxic waste.
Lieberman said for the time being his committee's inquiry will focus on these three regulations, but he did not rule out expanding into other matters.
"We'll strike where necessary," said Lieberman, adding that the Bush administration has a more secretive view of the deliberative process than is warranted.
In another confrontation, the General Accounting Office, an investigative agency of Congress, has been in a tug-of-war with Vice President Dick Cheney's office over the release of information concerning deliberations of Cheney's energy task force as it prepared the administration's energy plan.
The GAO, working at the request of Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and John Dingell of Michigan, has demanded a list of people the task force consulted and other documents. Cheney said recently no such list would be provided and the matter is likely to end up in court.
Lieberman said there are similarities in that dispute with the one that had faced his committee, but no decision had been made whether to move into areas beyond the regulations now the focus of his committee.