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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Congress and the White House prepare for battle over access to information

Summer Blog

There is quite a buzz in Washington as the new Congress gets underway, with Democrats in the driving seat in both houses.

The Sydney Morning Herald report "Congress set to give Bush a hammering" gives some of the flavour of looming differences between Congress and the White House over Iraq, global warming and a range of other issues.

The top priority for Democrats was to get moving on ethics and corruption issues and a bill passed the House of Representatives within hours that imposes new limits on dealings with lobbyists. The lunch trade is about to take a nose dive as members of Congress and their staff are no longer permitted to accept any gift including a free meal from a lobbyist or an organisation that employs one.

The right to access information by members of Congress is likely to be a hot topic. Today's Washington Post reports that the resignation of White House Counsel Harriet Miers, is linked to plans to "muscle up" for a sustained struggle over access to documents as Congress prepares to investigate various aspects of government activity. Likely areas include abuse of detainees, whether a blind eye was turned to profiteering by politically connected contractors in Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and whether senior officials complied with the law in ordering heightened domestic surveillance.

The Bush White House has in the past dug in its heels in refusing access to some documents sought by Congressional committees including a refusal in December to provide a copy of a memorandum authorising the CIA to create secret detention centres overseas and another detailing interrogation methods the CIA could use. The reason given for the latter will sound familiar to Australian readers, particularly NSW Crown Solicitor Ian Knight - the memo constituted "confidential legal advice".

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