Will James G. Watt end up in a dungeon in the House of Representatives, subsisting on bread and water until he forks over documents demanded by a congressional subcommittee?
The morning after a House subcommittee voted to cite him for contempt of Congress, the scrappy interior secretary said he would be willing to go to jail for the Gipper, that is, for the principle of executive privilege, which President Reagan has invoked for the first time.
Environmentalists, of course, would love to see the "rape-and-ruin" guardian of the wilderness locked up anywhere, and the House option, although unlikely, is written plain in the federal code: "Either house may dispatch its sergeant at arms to arrest and imprison those who obstruct its legislative functions."
The secretary received his citation, in absentia, from the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Watt has refused to turn over papers, one of them the work of a summer intern, that relate to a congressional investigation of a Canadian policy that facilitates the takeover of U.S. oil companies.
Coached by the White House, Watt contends that release of the documents would invade the privacy of Cabinet deliberations. Attorney General William French Smith wrote a curious letter to the subcommittee claiming that executive privilege shrouds any piece of paper that might have been seen by the president, even though 23 bureaucrats from seven agencies had seen them.
The next steps are to put the citation before the full Energy and Commerce Committee and then, if it is upheld there, before the whole House.
Just before the subcommittee roll was called, one Democrat asked Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) if the consequences would be civil or criminal. Dingell said the intent of the citation was coercive rather than punitive.
But according to James Hamilton, who earned his letter on executive privilege as an attorney on the Senate Watergate Committee, the House could stash Watt away on the premises. Or it could cite him for criminal contempt and hand him over to the attorney general. Or it could bring a civil suit, as was done in the case of Richard M. Nixon, who provides the most famous instance of a failed claim to executive privilege.
The 11-to-6 subcommittee vote was saved from being totally partisan by the ranking Republican member, Marc L. Marks of Pennsylvania. Marks came to the proceedings in a wheel chair, due to excruciating back pains. His affliction is forcing him to retire from Congress. It also liberates him from going down the line for the president, although not from a swarm of telephone calls urging him to do so.
Marks tried to mediate the dispute, which has been in progress since last October. He told Interior officials that the ridiculous fight over papers of trifling content would bring the White House into disrepute.
Marks' lone stand emboldened Democrats who come from oil states, where the abrasive Watt, an advocate of drilling in Yellowstone Park, is a folk hero. All of them voted to cite Watt for what Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who introduced the resolution, called "contumacious failure" to comply with a subcommittee subpoena.
Watt, who glories in his enemies, is the perfect fall guy to promote the anti-information policies of the White House, which is whittling away at the Freedom of Information Act, hauling out polygraphs for suspected leakers and trying to discourage officials from telling reporters the time of day.
But he has also, on his own, displayed a contempt for Congress as wide as the Grand Canyon.
Other committee chairmen in the Democratic House--the Republican Senate is a different story--have been stonewalled by Watt. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio), was informed that no staff contacts would be permitted between Watt's department and Seiberling's Interior subcommittee on public lands and national parks. Questions of fact must be submitted in writing. All issues must be dealt with in formal sessions.
"You are provoking a constitutional confrontation," Seiberling told the secretary.
"That is true," Watt said.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of another Interior subcommittee, also has been buffaloed in his probe of Watt's appropriation of the home of Robert E. Lee for two private parties in December. Park Service employes told Markey that they had been warned not to talk by their superiors at Interior.
Just why Ronald Reagan has picked a fight with Congress over bureaucratic memos when he has so many other battles brewing is not clear.
"It was an intergovernmental decision," said a spokesman for White House counsel Fred F. Fielding.
It will be Watt alone who goes to the slammer if someone down there doesn't read the Constitution, which says quite plainly that the president cannot, except in rare cases, tell Congress to mind its own business.