The House Judiciary Committee voted, 21 to 12, yesterday to cut off funds to the attorney general's office if the Justice Department refuses to enforce a law aimed at increasing competition for government contracts.
The provision, introduced by Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), is intended to force Attorney General Edwin Meese III to comply with a provision of the Deficit Reduction Act that authorizes the General Accounting Office to hold up the award of a government contract if a legitimate protest is filed by a competing bidder.
In April, Meese told the committee the administration will defy Congress and a court decision ordering the president to enforce the law, pending a decision by a higher court.
At a hearing on the department's $3.7 billion authorization bill, Brooks said all Meese has to do is "follow the Constitution and follow the law and he's home free."
"What is at issue here is whether the attorney general is above the law," said Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.). "And the answer is that he is not above the law. He should be setting an example."
But Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. (R-N.Y.) said the panel's move is a "draconian, primitive reaction" to cut off funds to pay the attorney general and his staff when the issue is being tested in the courts.
In December, budget director David A. Stockman told the executive branch to ignore the provision.
Congress reacted to the action with unusual bipartisan unity against the administration, trading accusations with the executive branch over violations of the separation of powers. The House Democratic and Republican leaders and a unanimous Senate joined in a test case on the law in New Jersey.
In March, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Ackerman ruled against the administration. Meese subsequently told the committee that the administration would ignore the order until a higher court ruled.