John D. Podesta, President and CEO of the Center for American Progress, testifies today before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law on how to ensure executive branch accountability.
The firings of U.S. attorneys have highlighted what Podesta calls “the larger campaign that has occupied the Bush administration from the moment the president took office: to increase the power of the executive at the expense of the other branches of government.”
“The irony,” he told subcommittee members, “is that the greater the power that the White House accumulates, the greater is the need for congressional access to White House documents and personnel.”
President Nixon tried to block his staff from giving congressional testimony, but most presidents have not tried to expand executive privilege to their staffs. In fact, the Congressional research service shows that presidential advisors have testified to Congress at least 73 times since 1944.
Podesta argues in his testimony that “issues surrounding the administration of justice are paramount and constitute the heart of a legitimate legislative inquiry.” The House and Senate Judiciary Committees therefore have “clear jurisdiction … and a legitimate need to hear testimony from key White House officials—on the record and under oath.”
It is true that U.S. attorneys “serve at the pleasure of the president,” but Podesta argues in his testimony that “the fact that the president has the power to remove them does not make it proper for him to do so.” U.S. attorneys are the personification our system of justice, and it is therefore vital that “they be seasoned professionals and not just political hacks who do the bidding of the president who appointed them in the prosecution of justice.”
Without complete information from the White House, including testimony from administration officials, Congress can not determine why the attorneys were fired and do their job, which is to provide oversight to the executive branch.
“This is not just a case about shifting explanations of underlying conduct that was legitimate; it is a case where the legitimacy of the conduct itself is seriously in doubt,” Podesta said. “Nor is this merely a political fishing expedition. There is more than enough evidence here to raise profound concerns—the smoke is rising and it needs to be investigated.”