In a head-on confrontation between Congress and the administration, a House oversight subcommittee voted yesterday to cite Anne M. Gorsuch, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over documents dealing with EPA enforcement in the cleanup of hazardous waste sites.
The 9-to-2 vote by the House Public Works subcommittee came after Gorsuch, who was subpoenaed to appear at the hearing, informed committee members that President Reagan had ordered her not to provide the documents and that she was invoking executive privilege.
The subcommittee, headed by Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), has been investigating since March whether the EPA has been properly managing the $1.6 billion "Superfund" approved by Congress two years ago to allow the EPA to clean up hazardous sites and prosecute companies responsible for illegal dumping.
Levitas said the preliminary findings "suggest that major chemical companies are not being held liable for the full costs of cleaning up their portion of the wastes at some of the largest waste sites in the country." He added that without specific information on how decisions are made, the subcommittee is unable to confirm or disprove those suggestions.
The EPA initially provided some records to the subcommittee, but when subcommittee staff investigators asked to see prosecution and investigation records, the EPA refused.
Robert Prolman, a member of the subcommittee staff, testified that the documents being withheld were "the most critical" in the panel's investigation.
On Nov. 22 the subcommittee issued a subpoena for all documents related to the 160 hazardous waste sites that have been designated by the EPA as national priorities. Gorsuch said yesterday that production of those records would involve the duplication of more than 780,000 pages of documents at a cost of $145,000.
She added that the EPA would not turn over "sensitive documents found in open law enforcement files." Gorsuch submitted a letter from Reagan that said: "Because dissemination of such documents outside the executive branch would impair my solemn responsibility to enforce the law, I instruct you and your agency not to furnish copies of this category of documents."
Gorsuch said afterward that one document being withheld outlines weaknesses in the prosecution's case. "What more could a defendant want?" she asked.
Gorsuch said 23 documents in that forbidden category have been isolated so far by the EPA, but she admitted under questioning that only a fraction of the documents have been examined. Staff sources estimated there could be more than 2,000 documents withheld.
Meanwhile, Gorsuch is scheduled to appear Dec. 14 under subpoena before the Energy and Commerce Committee where she will be asked to provide similar documents relating to three hazardous waste sites.
That committee, headed by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), is the one that voted to cite Interior Secretary James G. Watt last year for contempt of Congress. Watt provided the information to the committee shortly before the contempt citation was to go to the full House for a vote.
Even Attorney General William French Smith is facing the threat of a congressional contempt citation. The House Post Office and Civil Service Committee subpoenaed Smith to produce documents by last Tuesday on the President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control. Chairman William D. Ford (D-Mich.) granted a time extension but has said through an aide that he is willing to pursue a contempt resolution.
Gorsuch called the contempt vote "party line" and said she did not take it "personally." One subcommittee Republican voted against Gorsuch while two other Republicans voted against the contempt resolution. The five other Republicans on the subcommittee were not present.
The contempt citation now goes to the Public Works Committee. If approved there, it would be up to the House to act. If a contempt citation is approved by the House, the Justice Department could be asked to prosecute her or the House sergeant at arms could arrest her.
Although the House once had its own jail, no one is sure where a prisoner could be kept today.