EDITORIAL: Memo to Obama: Don’t lawyer up

Administration should cooperate with new committee chairmen

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One of the most important lessons of political history is that the cover-up is usually worse than the crime. President Obama ought to take note of this as he heads into the next two years of divided government and before he finds his administration mired in unnecessary legal battles.

Democratic insiders are in a frenzy over the prospect of newly empowered House Republicans bombarding the White House with subpoenas. Some former Clinton administration officials are advising the Obama administration to fight tooth and nail, as reported in Politico’s lead story Thursday, headlined “Memo to White House: Lawyer Up.” This advice is dangerous. The easiest way to nip investigations in the bud is to act with such transparency that the inquiries become unnecessary.

President Obama’s first two years have followed too much the Clinton (and Nixon) pattern of stonewalling. The administration blocked legitimate probes into the firing of AmeriCorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin. It sidestepped questions about its job offers to Senate candidates Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania and Andrew Romanoff in Colorado. It dodged requests for documents related to various financial-system bailouts and immigration enforcement. Worse, it has gone beyond ordinary evasive maneuvering into an earth-scorching effort to conceal the deliberations and policy choices made in the New Black Panther Party voter-intimidation case.

The administration’s secrecy was matched only by the arrogance of congressional Democrats who conducted negotiations on the Obamacare bill behind closed doors and of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who infamously said, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” Tuesday’s results show the public has little patience for this kind of behavior on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

An all-encompassing, not to mention enervating, battle of attrition between a Republican House and a Democratic administration is not inevitable. Two other Clinton administration veterans, lawyers Lanny Davis and Mark Fabiani, described a better option to Politico. Post all the requested documents on the Internet from the start, they say. Show the public there’s nothing to hide. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to use the technology and use your promise to turn things around on the other side,” Mr. Fabiani said.

Rather than ratchet up the tension and political stakes, such openness lets the heat dissipate and eventually disappear. The American people don’t want legal battles; they just want assurance that their government is following the law. As Mr. Obama himself said in his post-election news conference, “I think the American people want to see more transparency, more openness.” He can prove that he means what he says by leading the charge for cooperation with the new leadership on Capitol Hill.

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