WASHINGTON — Following through on the Democratic Party's pledge to conduct aggressive oversight, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) headed toward a possible confrontation Tuesday with the White House over his demands for documents that could show whether the Bush administration interfered with the work of government climate scientists to downplay the dangers of global warming.
Waxman, presiding over his first hearing as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, did not threaten to issue subpoenas, but said he would "insist on Congress' right" to the information.
Waxman and the committee's top Republican, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, sent a strongly worded letter to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, calling on it to "reconsider the confrontational approach" and produce the documents within 10 days.
"The committee isn't trying to obtain state secrets or documents that could affect our immediate national security," said Waxman, complaining that he and Davis had been asking for the documents for six months. "We are simply seeking answers to whether the White House's political staff is inappropriately censoring impartial government scientists."
Davis added: "We have every right to understand what the science is showing and how the administration is spinning it."
A spokeswoman for the Council on Environmental Quality said allegations that the administration had attempted to interfere with the work of climate scientists were false. Kristen Hellmer also said the agency had provided more than 10,000 pages of documents and would try to work with the committee.
The oversight hearing was one of the first to be held by the new Democratic majority in Congress. Waxman, a lawmaker with a reputation as an investigatory pit bull, plans to hold four hearings next week on fraud, waste and abuse in government spending in Iraq and other areas.
Tuesday's hearing was prompted by reports that administration appointees, including a former oil industry lobbyist who was chief of staff at the Council on Environmental Quality, edited climate change reports or pressured scientists to tone down statements about the dangers of global warming.
The White House has opposed mandatory caps on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, contending the caps could be costly to industry and harm the economy.
Waxman said that the evidence examined by his staff strongly suggested that administration officials had attempted to "mislead the public by injecting doubt into the science of global warming."
He cited documents that were edited to add "balance" by emphasizing the "beneficial effects" of climate change, to delete a discussion of the human health and environmental effects of climate change, and to remove the statement that changes "observed over the last several decades are likely mostly the result of human activities."
Appearing before the committee, Rick Piltz, a former official in the U.S. Climate Change Science Program who is now director of Climate Science Watch for the Government Accountability Project, a "whistle-blower protection" group, said he experienced firsthand the administration's "politicization of climate science."
"Administration political officials appeared increasingly to take an interest in managing the flow of communications pertaining to climate change in such a way as to minimize the perception that scientifically based communications might be seen as conflicting with the administration's political message on climate change policy," he said.
During the hearing, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that it had found 150 government scientists who said they had experienced political interference in their work in the last five years.
Drew Shindell, a NASA scientist, said that the title of a press release was "softened" from its original "Cool Antarctica May Warm Rapidly This Century, Study Finds" -- which probably diminished media and public interest in the report. "While it was frustrating for me to see my work suppressed, even more importantly, it is a disservice to the public to distort or suppress the information needed for decision-making," he said in written testimony.
Davis, however, said that he hadn't seen evidence of anything other than an administration attempting to put its own political spin on research, something he said that Democratic and Republican administrations had done. "What you have are a lot of disgruntled scientists who don't like the policies of the administration," he said.
Freshman Rep. Bill Sali (R-Idaho) also expressed concern about the focus of future oversight hearings, contending that Tuesday's hearing seemed "less about finding answers than making an argument."
He said he hoped he was wrong, but added, "I hope it is not a foretaste of contentious partisanship cloaked as oversight."