WASHINGTON – Lawmakers delivered a bipartisan tongue-lashing to the White House budget chief on Thursday and threatened to withhold funds unless the Bush administration provides more details about anti-terrorism efforts at home.
Budget Director Mitchell Daniels endured repeated angry lectures from members of the House Appropriations Committee in the latest flare-up between Congress and the White House over information sharing and the war.
"This is a major issue," Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., told Daniels, the only witness at the hearing. "It involves billions of taxpayer dollars. More importantly, it involves millions of lives."
In his written statement, Istook said, "I hope that the lack of necessary information does not compel us to withhold funds for the priorities established by the president."
He did not read that comment but said afterward that he stood by it. Istook chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that controls the budget for White House operations.
Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the committee's top Democrat, said Daniels and other administration officials have "a severe attitude problem" and view Congress as "small-minded and inconsequential rabble." He cited their refusal to fully brief lawmakers on domestic security, White House criticisms of congressional "earmarks" of money for hometown projects, and the recent firing of a civilian Army official who criticized administration plans for water projects.
"This committee has an obligation," said Obey, citing Congress' constitutional power to spend funds. "No information, no money."
Daniels told lawmakers that "we're happy and determined" to provide more information faster. And he said he meant no condescension in recent weeks when he described some congressional restrictions as "Lilliputian."
But Daniels would not back away from his frequent criticisms of parochial projects lawmakers win for their districts. And as for last week's firing of Mike Parker, head of the Army Corps of Engineers, Daniels said "the course of honor ... if one can't agree with a president's policy is to resign one's post."
With terrorists being pursued overseas and at home, it seems unlikely that lawmakers would cut spending for any such programs.
But symbolic reductions somewhere are possible. Obey said cuts should be aimed at the White House budget office that Daniels heads "if we don't get better cooperation."
The lawmakers' comments underlined growing tensions between the two branches over information sharing that have transcended party lines.
Recent clashes include the lawsuit by Congress' General Accounting Office seeking the names of business executives who met with Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force. In addition, some congressional leaders said they did not know some federal officials were secretly working outside Washington in case of a catastrophic attack on the capital.
The latest irritant is homeland security Director Tom Ridge's refusal to testify before congressional committees.
Istook said it violates Congress' constitutional power to defend the United States and regulate the armed forces. Administration officials say Ridge has privately briefed lawmakers but will heed the usual practice in which the president's immediate staff does not testify to Congress.
Daniels has been at odds with many members of Congress' Appropriations committees since the start of the administration last year, when Bush's first budget proposed eliminating thousands of parochial projects. The committee writes the annual spending bills that are home to those projects.
Their relationship soured further last fall when he opposed bipartisan efforts to increase domestic security spending, and when the president's February budget criticized many lawmakers' earmarks.