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What does the White House fear?

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Arizona, has made the kind of modest legislative proposal you would think the most ethical administration in the history of America would appreciatively and enthusiastically embrace.

Angered by the administration’s stonewalling refusals to disclose how much taxpayers have subsidized the entertainment of political donors by the president , Kolbe has urged the appointment of an independent White House financial watchdog of the kind overseeing every other federal agency.

But the Clinton administration objects to the installation of an inspector general to oversee spending, hiring practices and travel expenses by the executive office. Why? It would be a violation of the Constitution, says President Clinton, because it would cloud the doctrine of separation of powers to have an executive branch watchdog office accountable to Congress.

Now we all know how much this president reveres the Constitution. I’m sure he lies awake at night fretting about the ways the federal government is corrupting it, misinterpreting it, violating it. But, nevertheless, this still seems like a strange argument.

Why? Because there are literally dozens of inspectors general currently overseeing every other executive branch government office — from the State Department to the Department of Veterans Affairs. No one has ever raised the constitutional challenge to these positions before, especially given they are appointed by the president himself. Further, under the Constitution, doesn’t Congress allocate the budget for the White House? Why is that not considered undue meddling or a violation of separation of powers?

Even more puzzling is the fact that this administration has been, in recent years, the principal champion of inspectors general investigations. Just last year, for instance, the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency and the Executive Council on Integrity and Efficiency released a joint report boasting that these offices had led to the recovery of $1.5 billion in 1995 and could save the taxpayers billions more.

“By highlighting inspector general efforts to be ‘agents of positive change,’ the report demonstrates the IGs” determination to help solve problems before they occur,” explained John Koskinen, a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. “As justly proud as the IGs are of their dollar recoveries to the government, they should be even more proud of the future problems they are preventing today.”

These “recoveries,” by the way, are dollar amounts that have been refunded to the treasury in fines and reimbursements from people and companies who defrauded the government.

Kolbe is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee that oversees the White House budget. Even in that critical oversight role, he has been unable to determine how much money the White House has spent entertaining high-dollar political contributors in the Lincoln Bedroom. The specific costs of such visits are simply not calculated by anyone. They are just passed on to you — the taxpayer — as cost overruns for White House operations.

The costs we do know about appear to be considerable. For instance, Kolbe found that the Clinton White House spent $429,924 on political receptions and dinners during the 1996 holiday season alone — three times what the Bush White House spent. When the Democratic Party has reimbursed the White House for such expenses, the payments have often been late, Kolbe says. He believes such political events should be prepaid by the party.

It’s also interesting to point out that the Clinton administration, while opposing a White House inspector general, has greatly expanded the role and authority of these watchdogs throughout the rest of government.

I personally don’t share Kolbe’s hope and expectation that a White House inspector general could clean up the stench of corruption, mismanagement and political shenanigans that currently pervades the administration. Remember, these are the folks who brought us Travelgate, the White House “coffees,” John Huang, Charlie Trie, Al Gore’s “Dialing for Dollars” show. It’s the outfit that still can’t tell you who hired Craig Livingstone. These are the people who curried favor with foreign arms merchants and international drug dealers who might make campaign contributions.

But, nevertheless, the president’s objection to even this level of accountability and propriety is revealing, indeed. Inevitably, it leaves one with the question: What do these people have to hide?