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White House science meetings with China illegal, says GAO

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) violated language in fiscal year (FY) 2011 appropriations by engaging in collaborations with China, the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO) has said.

Virginia Republican Frank Wolf, who chairs the House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee that funds OSTP and science agencies such as NASA, had inserted the appropriations language and subsequently complained that the administration had dismissed it. Earlier this year Wolf had asked GAO to investigate whether the White House violated the law in its continued interactions with China.

In an analysis released on 11 October, GAO found that OSTP broke the law by spending $3,500 in connection with an Innovation Dialogue and a US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in May 2011.

GAO said that the appropriations language in question, which carries over to the FY12 appropriations under development in Congress, states that neither OSTP nor NASA can use its appropriations to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned companies. OSTP’s participation in both of those dialogues “contravened” that restriction, GAO said.

OSTP director John Holdren opened the Innovation Dialogue and moderated discussions, and OSTP staff prepared materials for and attended the discussions, in addition to inviting US and Chinese officials to a dinner that it paid for using its appropriation.

Furthermore, Holdren spoke on multiple occasions during the meeting, including a discussion of climate science.

“In our view, legislation that was passed by Congress and signed by the President, thereby satisfying the Constitution’s bicameralism and presentment requirements, is entitled to a heavy presumption in favor of constitutionality,” GAO concluded.

OSTP does not deny engaging in these prohibited activities, according to GAO. Instead, OSTP has argued that applying the appropriations restriction to the events is an unjust infringement on President Obama’s constitutional prerogatives in foreign affairs.

OSTP also has contended that Congress may not “use its appropriations power” to infringe on the President’s exclusive constitutional authority in this area.