The General Accounting Office notified Congress Tuesday that it intends to sue the Energy Department for refusing to spend money that Congress twice ordered to be used for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
The GAO suit, only the second such action in the history of the agency, signals a new escalation of the fight between Congress and the administration over White House "deferrals" of spending ordered by Congress. Deferred money is put on hold unless both houses of Congress pass a law ordering the president to spend it.
"The administration is trying to impound funds illegally," said Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.). "If they are successful they can literally force Congress to speak twice on every issue.
"The [Strategic Petroleum Reserve] is probably the most abused program when it comes to deferrals. They have ignored or gone in the opposite direction of congressional intent twice in one year."
Last February the president proposed to defer $270,738,000 appropriated for the reserve. Both houses of Congress expressly disapproved the deferral in August. In December, the president suspended contracts for work on the reserve, and he proposed another deferral last month. "DOE has indicated that $156,800,000 of this amount is a redeferral" of the same funds the president tried to defer last year, the GAO said. Because Congress has already spoken on the issue at hand, and because the president's stated reason for the deferral remains the same, the deferral is "not in accordance with existing statutory authority," GAO said.
The GAO will sue under the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, passed in 1974 in response to President Richard M. Nixon's effort to impound congressionally authorized funds for programs he opposed. The law requires a 25-day notice to Congress before the filing of a civil suit. A suit would pit the GAO, an arm of the legislative branch whose head is appointed by the president, against the executive branch.
The Energy Department said the GAO decision "raises a number of legal issues that require careful consideration."
The administration proposes deferrals totaling $22.9 billion in its 1987 budget. Four Democratic members of Congress, city officials and local housing and development groups who object to one proposed deferral have filed suit in U.S. District Court here to strike down the president's deferral rights.