Bolten’s Ties to Bush Targeted
Josh Bolten’s nomination to be director of the Office of Management and Budget, scheduled to go before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee this morning, is shaping up as a proxy battle over a clutch of thorny oversight issues and controversies that remain unresolved between Congress and the White House in the past two years.
The questions involve everything from the energy task force and Congress’ Sept. 11, 2001, inquiry, to the impact of GOP donors on the president’s first tax-cut plan and alleged White House fiddling with global warming data in an Environmental Protection Agency report.
With the nomination of Bolten, who previously served as President Bush’s deputy chief of staff, Democrats see an opportunity to get answers.
The matters emerge from a seven-page pre-hearing questionnaire submitted to the nominee by the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), obtained by Roll Call.
It is not clear how strongly Lieberman, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, is willing to press for answers.
“It’s fair to say that Senator Lieberman would not be asking questions that he didn’t think it was important to have answered,” Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said, though she described the written inquiry as just “one part” of the confirmation process.
Phillips stressed that the questions are about matters “directly under [Bolten’s] authority” in his previous White House position.
But as to whether Lieberman would take steps to block the nomination if Bolten’s answers fall short of the Senator’s expectations, Phillips said, “We don’t talk about ‘holds’ or ‘no-holds.’”
The give-and-take with Bolten is only the latest chapter in the Democrats’ efforts to plumb the inner sanctum of the Bush White House, where party leaders are convinced a direct conduit between the administration’s policy shop and corporate America exists.
The documents also offer a revealing glimpse into the political stakes that have come to play out between the White House and Congressional Democrats through the confirmation process, where Capitol Hill’s minority party has found its greatest clout.
The White House did not respond to calls seeking comment. An OMB spokesman declined to discuss Bolten’s response to the committee. “Mr. Bolten is currently not confirmed,” OMB spokesman Trent Duffy said.
Bolten’s previous role in the White House would seem to make him a rich target for Congressional Democrats. As Bush’s top policy aide, Bolten played an integral role in virtually all policy decisions coming from the president and was in fact a member of the energy task force, which was chaired by Vice President Cheney.
The energy task force has been perhaps the most serious bone of contention between the White House and Capitol Hill. The efforts of Congressional Democrats to learn who participated in the group’s meetings eventually led the General Accounting Office to sue the Bush administration — albeit unsuccessfully — for the answers.
Lieberman’s written questions for the nominee place a hardy premium on naming names.
On the EPA matter, the Connecticut lawmaker asks for “a list of all officials” who saw the raw report or recommended changes to it. With regard to White House deliberations on energy policy, the request is for the name of “any company or group” that met with Bolten and “what was discussed.”
Lieberman also probes for information about a 2001 fundraising pitch by the National Republican Congressional Committee that offered potential contributors a chance to meet with Bolten and other administration officials to discuss Bush’s tax-cut plans.
“Did you attend any of these meetings?” Lieberman asks. “If so, please describe, in detail, the ‘input’ and ‘ideas’ that you received. With whom did you meet and what did you discuss? How did your participation help shape the shape the [sic] President’s 2001 tax proposal? Of the ‘recommendations’ from the participants in these meetings that were forwarded to the White House, which were incorporated in either the President’s 2001 tax proposal or the final tax bill that was signed into law by the President?”
Lieberman shows special curiosity about the alleged suppression of an obscure Treasury Department analysis suggesting the government’s long-term budget liabilities were greater than the Bush administration had previously acknowledged.
Assuming Bolten is aware of the report, Lieberman asks for information about “who made the decision” not to include the data in the fiscal year 2004 budget; “who else was involved” in that decision; and whether anyone raised any objections or concerns. “If so, please identify these individuals.”
In his response, which Roll Call also obtained, Bolten is evasive on several points, citing the need to maintain confidentiality in “internal” and “pre-decisional” policy deliberations and discussions.
On the NRCC matter, Bolten says he does not recall going to “any NRCC-sponsored events of the nature described in your question,” and he pledges to observe all applicable government ethics laws and regulations.
Maybe the most intriguing portion of Lieberman’s questionnaire concerns a 1980 Stanford Law Review article in which Bolten wrote about the way in which documents are classified as “secret” by the government.
“Given your interest in this issue,” Lieberman writes, “what are your views regarding the impasse during the last six months regarding the declassification and release of the report prepared by the Joint 9/11 Inquiry of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees? Do you believe that the Intelligence community and the Executive Branch have had ample time to do a pre-publication review and make the judgments necessary to properly de-classify and release this report?”
Bolten responds that he has not been “involved” in deliberations over the 9/11 Inquiry, but believes the Bush administration has cooperated fully with Congress in the matter.
Bolten’s nomination comes in the wake of one of the more controversial tenures at OMB in recent history.
Outgoing director Mitch Daniels was regarded on Capitol Hill as somewhat hard-headed and often expressed impatience with lawmakers who complained about his actions and decisions. His abrasive manner at times rankled even some Republicans, including Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman.
While praising Daniels, Republican Senators have been quick to point out that Bolten has a more “collegial” bearing and seems to communicate well with Capitol Hill.
Bolten’s reputedly low-key style has helped move his nomination through the confirmation process without incident so far. But some key lawmakers, including Appropriations Committee ranking member Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the ranking member on the Budget Committee, have indicated that they will withhold judgment on the nomination until Bolten has testified.
Byrd, for one, was among the Senators who at one point recently had a hold placed on Clay Johnson, Bush’s nominee for the deputy slot at OMB.