Energy-plan lesson: Use task forces at peril

Cheney's energy panel highlight problem of trying to operate behind closed doors.

At this very moment, hundreds of task forces, commissions, and advisory groups are quietly imparting their collective wisdom to the Bush administration.

Considering everything from who should be awarded a National Science Foundation grant to the future status of Puerto Rico, they hum along, a part of the Washington machinery that gets little attention.

Until, as occasionally happens, critics of administration policy become upset about their methods of operation. In that case, their very existence can become a big problem for the officials they were meant to serve.

For President Bush, the energy task force is the broken gear that's messing up an otherwise exceptionally well-oiled administration. This, after all, is the experienced White House. And Vice President Cheney, who directed the task force, is the most experienced of all, a former congressman who also served three former presidents.

And yet, political observers say Mr. Cheney has fallen into a classic trap for new administrations. In an effort to push forward an ambitious policy goal, indeed, a campaign promise, a high-profile task force was set up. It consulted with those who shared the president's overall views. It operated behind closed doors. And, like President Clinton's healthcare task force, it ran into trouble when those shut out from the process sued to find out what was going on.

"I think this is the mistake of any new administration," says Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton. "You're trying to piece together a quick policy, you're trying to do it as best you can. I think you just forget about the fact that ultimately all that you're doing could come back to haunt you."

While there was no Enron to spur on the critics of First Lady Hillary Clinton's healthcare task force, her group – like Vice President Cheney's – was tackling an issue of major importance. When outsiders began to see the deck was stacked in a certain policy direction, and, not being consulted, felt helpless to do anything about it, they turned to the courts.

That's what's happened again here. This week, the Department of Energy was forced by court order to hand over 11,000 pages of documents to special-interest groups, which sued under the Freedom of Information Act.

EARLY review of the documents indicate that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, a key player in Cheney's task force, met with dozens of energy representatives and campaign contributors, but held no meetings with consumer or environmental groups. Interestingly, the agency's contact with Enron on the energy policy appears to have been minimal.

Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, contends that environmental groups were not ignored.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman "held a meeting" with conservation and environmental groups, and so did the vice president. The final energy report contained 42 recommendations aimed at conservation and the environment, he says.

Environmentalists respond that there was no formal consultation with the EPA on the energy task force. They met once with Andrew Lundquist, the vice president's point man on the task force – after the group's findings had been drafted. The meeting with Cheney took place after the report was printed and made public.

Larry Klayman, head of Judicial Watch, which also sued for these and other task-force related documents, says he and others plan to go back to court. Many of the documents have blank sections, missing material that the administration says would improperly reveal "the deliberative process" that led to the task force's conclusions.

According to Mr. Klayman, the principles of balance and openness are at stake.

The last thing a president wants is an unpredictable task force. President Nixon, for instance, was deeply embarrassed when his drug commission recommended the decriminalization of marijuana, a policy he staunchly opposed. The same for President Johnson, whose Kerner commission on race indicated a monumental gap between blacks and whites.

Typically, task forces and commissions are filled with people who share the president's views, says Mr. Panetta. "From the beginning, those task forces are pretty much set up for confirming what you want to do anyway," he says. The trick, he adds, is to touch base with enough competing interests so that "you prevent a total blow up from those you haven't talked to."

The 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act requires that task forces be open to the public when they involve committee members who are not part of the administration. The energy panel avoided this requirement by not putting any outsiders on the task force.

Still, even if the administration continues to fight it out on legal grounds, there's the question of political cost. "No task force is worth it," says Panetta, "if the task force itself becomes the issue."

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