A House subcommittee voted yesterday to cite Interior Secretary James G. Watt for contempt of Congress in refusing to turn over documents related to an investigation of Canada's oil and gas policies.
Voting 11 to 6, the Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee passed a resolution citing Watt for "contumacious failure" to comply with a subpoena and answer questions during a hearing last year.
If the resolution is approved by the full committee and then by the House, Watt technically would be subject to prosecution in a federal court or, under a rarely used procedure, could be tried for contempt by the House.
Contempt citations against Cabinet members rarely go to such extremes. Two other cases brought by the oversight subcommittee in the past decade were settled before the full committee acted.
However, Watt is unusually unpopular with members of several committees for policies restricting the flow of information to Congress. He recently irritated the chairmen of Interior and Government Operations subcommittees by informing them by letter that their staffs could no longer meet informally with Interior officials.
"What seems to be emerging is a pattern of obstructionism by this department to legitimate requests for information," said Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) of the oversight subcommittee. "If the materials denied the subcommittee in this instance can be covered by executive privilege, then Congress can be denied access to virtually any information in the possession of the executive branch."
The subcommittee vote was generally along partisan lines, although the ranking Republican, Marc L. Marks of Pennsylvania, joined with 10 Democrats in approval of the resolution. Marks, however, largely exonerated Watt, asserting that the White House had intervened to assert executive privilege over the documents and that the secretary may have wanted to resolve the dispute.
The only Republican to vocally defend Watt, Rep. James T. Broyhill of North Carolina, said the contempt citation should be directed at President Reagan and not at Watt, who he said had cooperated in making many disputed documents available.
At issue are eight questions Watt refused to answer and 10 or 11 documents out of 31 that he initially refused to turn over, Dingell said. The administration claimed that the disputed documents could not be provided because they involve sensitive foreign affairs discussions or represent in-house working documents protected by law.
The dispute grew out of the subcommittee's investigations last year into how Canada's new energy policies, which favor that nation's oil and gas companies, affect those companies' U.S. operations on leased federal lands. American law insists on reciprocity--in effect, holding that foreign corporations cannot lease U.S. lands for drilling unless their home country provides equal treatment in law, taxation and other matters for American corporations.
Some American firms contend that Canada's policies are no longer reciprocal, but last week the Interior Department determined that Canada observes reciprocity.
To find out how Interior was examining Canada's policy, the subcommittee last year requested a number of documents, which Watt refused to submit. In response to a subcommittee subpoena, the department initially claimed executive privilege for 31 documents but has since agreed to provide about 20 of them, according to committee sources.
A spokesman for Watt said he has turned over nearly 200 documents and that only seven remain totally under an executive privilege claim. All of these involve either "highly sensitive" foreign policy matters or stem from White House and Cabinet discussions, the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, Watt also came under criticism yesterday at House Interior subcommittee hearings investigating the potential leasing of wilderness areas for oil and gas exploration. Watt has said the law requires him to permit leasing, although he recently extended a moratorium on such leasing until the end of this year.
Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) accused Watt of deviating from the policies of previous administrations to open up leasing in wilderness areas. Subcommittee Chairman John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio) said Congress should move to ban exploration in wilderness areas and not be "lulled" into indifference by Watt's extension of a moratorium.