The House yesterday asked a federal judge to uphold its authority to prosecute Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch for contempt of Congress, intensifying the constitutional confrontation over her refusal to turn over documents subpoenaed by a House subcommittee.
In a harshly worded motion filed in U.S. District Court here, the House argued that the Reagan administration has mounted "a misguided attempt to restrain the operation of the legislative process" in trying to block the contempt proceeding.
The Justice Department filed suit against the House earlier this month, asking a judge to void Gorsuch's contempt citation, which passed the House by a lopsided bipartisan vote of 259 to 105. The suit said Gorsuch was not required to comply with the subpoena, in part because of the executive's privilege to withhold sensitive information from Congress.
In filing the suit, Justice Department officials said they did not plan to prosecute Gorsuch, the first Cabinet-level official ever charged with contempt by the full House, and argued that the dispute should be resolved as a civil case over the limits of executive privilege.
However, the House motion said the administration lawsuit "offends so many established principles of federal jurisdiction" that it should be dismissed.
"This case is an unprecedented and historic first," it said. It argued that the executive branch lacks legal authority to sue Congress for its legislative acts and that the administration has "utterly failed" to prove that complying with the House subpoena would injure the national interest.
It also took issue with the administration for calling its lawsuit "The United States of America versus The House of Representatives of the United States of America." Congress and the executive are equal branches, the House motion said, and neither has authority to file suit in the name of "the United States as sovereign."
At the center of the dispute is an attempt by a House subcommittee to obtain legal documents from Gorsuch on her agency's handling of the $1.6 billion Superfund created by Congress in 1980 to help pay for the cleanup of the nation's worst hazardous waste dumps.
Gorsuch, under orders from President Reagan, refused to turn over many documents on EPA lawsuits against companies responsible for the dumps. Congress also called on the EPA to use the Superfund to pay for the prosecution of these firms, and several House members alleged that the EPA has failed to assess large enough fines against the polluters.
Reagan, and his legal advisers in the Justice Department, argued that the EPA papers were too sensitive to law enforcement efforts to be released to Congress, even in confidence. The attempt to obtain the records has interfered with "the lawful exercise of the powers conferred upon the executive branch," the administration argued in an amendment to its lawsuit.
House leaders contended, however, that they need the papers to fulfill their duty to see that their laws are carried out. They called hazardous waste "one of the most serious public health and environmental problems facing the nation in this century." Poisons leaking from the dumps have contaminated drinking water and been linked to cancer and birth defects.