The House of Representatives voted last night to hold Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch in contempt of Congress for withholding information from a House subcommittee on orders from President Reagan.
By a lopsided, bipartisan vote of 259 to 105, Gorsuch became the first top-level executive branch official ever to have the charge leveled against her by the full House, according to congressional researchers.
The action sets up a historic confrontation in the courts over the executive privilege of presidents to withhold information from Congress.
Fifty-five Republicans joined 204 Democrats to pass the resolution, which will be forwarded to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia to be presented to a federal grand jury, according to House leaders. The maximum penalty for contempt of Congress is a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.
However, minutes after the House vote, the Justice Department filed suit against House leaders in federal court here to have the dispute changed from a criminal case to a civil test of the limits of executive privilege.
"I work for the president, and I will follow his instructions and do so proudly," Gorsuch told reporters last night. Vowing to continue to withhold the information demanded by Congress even if she had to go to jail, Gorsuch said, "I think the president made the correct decision."
White House spokesman Peter Roussel said, "We did everything to reach an accommodation. We will be consulting the Justice Department."
Gorsuch had refused to turn over to a House subcommittee certain documents about EPA's enforcement of the 1980 federal law mandating cleanup of hazardous-waste dumps.
The White House and the Justice Department argued that many documents subpoenaed by the subcommittee are too important to potential litigation to be released without jeopardizing what Reagan called "my solemn responsibility to enforce the law."
But in an emotional debate last night, Democratic House leaders and several Republicans argued that the administration had used executive privilege as a "smokescreen," misinterpreting the Constitution and hindering Congress in its effort to ensure that laws are carried out.
"This Congress and all our constituents have been thwarted by the administration," said Rep. James J. Howard (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, which sent the contempt citation to the House floor. "They are telling us we have no right to see the documents they are using to implement the law we passed."
"For those who have partisan problems," conservative Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.) said to fellow Republicans, "I ask you to imagine: what if Jimmy Carter were president and Ralph Nader were EPA administrator and they were doing this? If that troubles you, then this should trouble you."
House Minority leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), who tried until late in the evening to negotiate a compromise between House leaders and the White House to head off a constitutional showdown, defended the administration stance.
Michel argued that cases against companies responsible for illegal dumping could be thwarted if the EPA documents became public, and that the House was moving too hastily, in a rushed lame-duck session, to weigh the complex legal issues involved in a contempt citation.
The Public Works subcommittee subpoenaed Gorsuch last month to turn over documents on her agency's enforcement efforts at all 160 of the hazardous waste dumps designated as priorities for cleanup under the 1980 federal Superfund program. Congress created the $1.6 billion fund to finance cleanup of dump sites and to pay for prosecution of companies that dump waste illegally.
The subpoena covered legal memos on EPA's enforcement strategy at sites where it may file suit against chemical companies; on the strengths and weaknesses of government cases against the companies, and on the government's position on legal issues involved, according to EPA officials.
The House committee said, in a report issued yesterday, that the documents were "crucial" to its efforts to determine whether EPA has properly enforced the Superfund law. The report questioned whether the agency has assessed large enough fines against major chemical companies for illegal dumping and whether it has moved quickly enough to clean up dump sites that are leaking poisonous wastes, posing threats to public health and safety.
In recent negotiations, committee members offered to review the documents in private to ensure confidentiality, and administration officials offered to submit the issue to federal court. Meanwhile, Gorsuch invoked executive privilege to withhold 42 Superfund documents from a panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which also then cited her for contempt.