Politics & Policy

Will Top White House Officials Testify Before Congress? Yes.

It's happened before; it will happen again.

We will soon learn, perhaps as early as today, whether there is any agreement between the White House and Senate Democrats over lawmakers’ demands that Karl Rove and other top Bush aides testify before Congress about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. It’s possible the White House will refuse to allow Rove and others to appear. But that seems unlikely; the administration, like others before it, simply doesn’t have a lot of ammunition in this fight.

Making the White House’s job more difficult is a report prepared a few years ago by the Congressional Research Service listing the instances in which White House aides have testified before Congress. The list is quite short from World War II to the 1970s; since then, it has grown progressively longer. Most recently, the report lists 31 officials from the Clinton White House who testified before Congress (along with their title at the time of their testimony):

Samuel Berger, National Security Adviser

Lanny Breuer, Special Counsel

Lloyd Cutler, Special Counsel

Lisa Caputo, Press Secretary to the First Lady

Charles Easley, Director, White House Office of Security

W. Neil Eggleston, Associate Counsel

Mark Gearan, Assistant to the President for Communications

Deborah Gorham, Assistant to the Associate Counsel

Nancy Heinreich, Deputy Assistant

Carolyn Huber, Special Assistant

Harold Ickes, Deputy Chief of Staff

Joel Klein, Deputy Counsel

Evelyn Lieberman, Deputy Press Secretary

Mark Lindsay, Director of White House Management and Administration

Bruce Lindsey, Special Adviser

Capricia Marshall, Special Assistant to the First Lady

Thomas McLarty, Counselor

Cheryl Mills, Deputy Counsel

Bobby Nash, Director of Presidential Personnel

Stephen Neuwirth, Associate Counsel

Dimitri Nionakis, Associate Counsel

Beth Nolan, Associate Counsel

John Podesta, Staff Secretary

John Quinn, Chief of Staff to the Vice President

Charles Ruff, Counsel

Jane Sherburne, Special Counsel

Clifford Sloan, Associate Counsel

Patty Solis, Director of Scheduling for the First Lady

George Stephanopoulos, Senior Policy Adviser

Patsy Thomasson, Assistant Director for Presidential Personnel

Margaret Williams, Chief of Staff to the First Lady

Most of the testimony given by Clinton officials concerned the Whitewater investigation. A significant number of appearances occurred in the summer of 1994, when Democrats controlled Congress and called Clinton officials to testify about their knowledge of the Resolution Trust Corporation and its investigation of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. Most of the rest of the testimony came in 1995 and 1996, as the new Republican majority continued the Whitewater probe.

The Congressional Research Service report quotes historian Louis Fisher on the issue of White House testimony: “Although White House aides do not testify before congressional committees on a regular basis, under certain conditions they do. First, intense and escalating political embarrassment may convince the White House that it is in the interest of the president to have these aides testify and ventilate the issue fully. Second, initial White House resistance may give way in the face of concerted congressional and public pressure.”

But the Bush White House, of course, has tried to restore some of the presidential prerogatives that officials believe were unwisely given away by earlier administrations. The fact that the Clinton White House allowed so many of its officials to testify, some Republicans argue, does not mean that the Bush White House has to do the same.

In addition, those Republicans argue that the U.S. attorney issue is different from Whitewater, in which by 1994 the Clinton administration had sought the appointment of an independent counsel to conduct a criminal investigation. In the U.S. attorney controversy, says Michael Carvin, who served in several top jobs in the Reagan Justice Department, “All they are complaining about is what everybody concedes is a prerogative of the president to make decisions about at-will employees. Since there is no allegation that the president has done anything in the sense of exercising a power he doesn’t have, they are going on a fishing exhibition.”

“The only conceivable reason I could think for making them testify under oath is to set a perjury trap,” adds Noel Francisco, who in recent years served in the Bush White House counsel’s office as well as the Justice Department. “They are not challenging the legality of anything the president has done; they are just snooping around. I can’t imagine why they want to get people under oath other than to play this game of gotcha.”

Democrats, of course, argue otherwise. The U.S. attorney issue goes to the heart of the justice system, they say, and the public has a right to know what’s going on. “I want testimony under oath,” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy said Sunday. “I am sick and tired of getting half-truths on this.”

In the end, though, the question will be settled not on the merits but on the numbers. Democrats have 51 votes in the Senate and 233 votes in the House. To some extent, the White House will have to make accommodations. “They posture mightily,” says one Washington insider of White Houses past and present, “and then they grab some fig leaf to give Congress what it wants.”


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