Tuesday the Washington Post revealed for the first time the list of energy giants that appeared before Dick Cheney's task force back in 2001. It was anticlimactic to say the least. By now, everyone knows that he met with a bunch of big oil and gas honchos and didn't give the time of day to the environmentalists. But the actual revelation of the names and dates has people scratching their heads about why Cheney would have held this back in the first place? Brad Plumer at the New Republic asks, "Was he just being secretive for the hell of it?"
Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog replies:
Actually, I think the record on this is crystal clear. Ever since he was Gerald Ford's chief of staff Cheney has believed that the post-Watergate Congress stripped far too much power from the presidency and that someone needed to restore it. That someone turned out to be him. Obviously he has a considerable amount of self-interest in this project now that he's vice president, but I also don't think there's any question that he genuinely believes this as a matter of principle. His refusal to release the energy task force schedule was almost certainly driven primarily by a belief that he needed to reassert the prerogatives of a strong executive and that this was the best place to start.
That's probably right, although I doubt very seriously that Dick Cheney is in favor of a unitary executive as a matter of principle. He's in favor of a Republican unitary executive as a matter of principle.
But there may be something a little bit less philosophical involved in this than meets the eye. There was a severe and nearly crippling energy crisis taking place in California at the beginning of the Bush administration. And the federal government refused to intervene at around the same time that Cheney's task force was meeting with some of the players, like Duke Energy (which shortly afterward met with Gov. Gray Davis and offered California a "secret deal").
When Cheney first began his stonewalling about his energy task force, there was a lot of suspicion that he and his energy pals had colluded in that crisis. This list was compiled in the summer of 2001, when the story was still roiling. So it's entirely possible that what began as a desire to keep the public from knowing that Cheney and his task force were meeting with the villains of the California blackouts conveniently became one of the earliest assertions of the unitary executive theory. After all, it's pretty clear that the unitary executive theory exists only as a means to cover up illegal, unethical or unconstitutional acts. Why else would they need it?