Waxman accepts GOP call to expand Hatch Act probe

Responding to Republican pressure, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will expand its investigation of political briefings at federal agencies to examine if Clinton administration officials engaged in similar practices.

Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., will ask the National Archives for records of political presentations by the White House Office of Political Affairs under President Clinton and for legal guidance from Clinton's counsel on the briefings.

"I agree with your suggestion that historical context would be helpful to the committee," Waxman told Oversight and Government ranking member Tom Davis, R-Va., in a Sept. 10 letter.

The committee is investigating electoral strategy briefings that White House political officials gave to appointees at most agencies. Last month Waxman asked 19 agencies for documents on events agency officials attended with lawmakers or candidates between 2003 and 2006.

He also requested information on agency contacts with a White House "asset deployment team," reportedly formed by President Bush's chief political aide Karl Rove to coordinate trips by senior agency officials and grant announcements to help the campaigns of Bush and Republican congressional candidates.

Committee staffers are reviewing responses to that request, a spokeswoman said. She said some agencies failed to meet a Sept. 7 deadline to turn over documents, but declined to identify them.

Democrats believe the White House actions may have violated the Hatch Act, which bars using federal resources for partisan politics. But committee Republicans have branded the probe a partisan exercise and argued the Clinton White House behaved no differently than the current administration.

Republicans on Tuesday welcomed Waxman's decision. "This will put [the investigation] on a more constructive and less partisan basis," said David Marin, the committee's Republican staff director.

In a statement, Davis said "a little compare and contrast" will show how the White House Political Affairs Office has traditionally operated. A spokeswoman for Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who previously called the probe a "witch hunt," said Waxman's decision will add balance to the committee's investigation.

Davis earlier this summer asked the committee to review Clinton-era political briefings and travel, and Marin said Waxman responded to mounting pressure.

"Ultimately he knew he couldn't oppose looking at whether the political office under Clinton may have done work that could be called, well, political," Marin said. "It couldn't pass the smell test."

Committee Republicans will likely cite any Clinton administration political activity at federal agencies to defend the practices of the Bush White House.

"Is this really the only time members of the White House political office briefed agencies on political developments?" Marin asked. "I doubt it."

But Waxman, who declined to comment, may be betting that reviewing Clinton-era political activity at agencies will show Bush administration officials were far more active on that front, since issues like election-related travel by agency heads under Clinton were already reviewed by the committee under former Government Reform Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind.

"The Clinton administration was subject to vastly more scrutiny by this committee than the Bush administration has been," Waxman said in his letter to Davis.

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