House Of Representatives Holds Eric Holder In Contempt

Congress has found Eric Holder to be in contempt. I am not entirely sure what that accomplishes.

For the first time in American history, a sitting Attorney General has been found in contempt of Congress:

The House of Representatives on Thursday voted to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt for failing to disclose internal Justice Department documents in response to a subpoena. It was the first time in American history that Congress has imposed that sanction on a sitting member of a president’s cabinet.

The vote – 255 to 67, with one member voting present – followed an acrimonious and politically charged debate. Many Democrats walked out of the chamber in protest without voting, accusing Republicans of railroading the motion so they could inflict political damage on the Obama administration during an election year.

The politically and constitutionally charged dispute centers on whether the Justice Department must turn over e-mails and memorandums showing its internal deliberations last year as officials grappled with a Congressional investigation about the botched Arizona-based gunrunning investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious. President Obama has invoked executive privilege to block the subpoena.

In early jostling on Thursday, Republicans repeatedly invoked the death of Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent killed in a shootout in December 2010. Two guns that had been purchased by a suspect in the gunrunning case the previous January were found near the scene.

“These contempt charges aren’t about politics,” said Representative Rich Nugent, Republican of Florida. “They aren’t about Attorney General Holder or President Obama or anything else but this: A man died serving his country and we have a right to know what the federal government’s hand was in that. It’s clear this country somehow played a role in his death. We need to root it out, find the cause, and make sure this never, ever happens again.”

Democrats dismissed the effort as an election-year witch hunt. They said previously disclosed documents and testimony had established that Fast and Furious was the work of Arizona-based law enforcement officials who were frustrated by the difficulty of bringing low-level gun cases, and they contended that Republicans were seeking to embarrass Mr. Holder for political reasons.

With Republicans in the majority in the House, there was little doubt that the final vote would be to cite Mr. Holder for contempt, as well as to authorize a lawsuit asking a judge to order the Justice Department to turn over the documents.

The only question was how many Democrats representing conservative-leaning districts would cross party lines to join in citing Mr. Holder. The National Rifle Association was pressuring them to do so, announcing that it would score the vote in its report card on how lawmakers approached Second Amendment gun rights.

In the end, 17 Democrats voted yes. They included some of the most endangered incumbents, among them Representatives Larry Kissell of North Carolina, Ben Chandler of Kentucky, and Kathy Hochul of New York. Representative Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who is running for the Senate, also voted yes. The gun group Gun Owners of America released a letter this week specifically demanding a yes from Mr. Donnelly.

The walkout echoed one by many Republicans in 2008, when the House, led by Democrats then, cited two Bush administration officials for contempt in a dispute over information related to a mass firing of United States attorneys.

“We’re going to make it clear we’re disappointed with the process and the superficiality with which this matter has been dealt with,” Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, the House minority whip, said Thursday.

A citation for contempt of Congress carries symbolic weight, but its practical impact is limited because the executive branch controls prosecution decisions.

Indeed, the likelihood that the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, to whom the criminal contempt finding will be referred for further action, is actually going to do anything about it is pretty low. After all, this guy is an employee of the department that Eric Holder is the head of, so there’s a bit of a conflict of interest issue going on there. This is why Congress also voted on a civil contempt finding, which it also approved. With this finding, the House can apply directly to a Federal District Judge for appropriate orders requiring Holder to show cause why he has not complied with the House Committee’s Subpoena. This will be the point at which the legal battle over the Obama Administration’s claim of Executive Privilege will be joined and, much like similar proceedings during the Clinton and Bush 43 Administrations, it is quite likely that the vast majority of those proceedings will be sealed from the public. After all, it’s rather difficult for a court to deal with a claim that certain things are entitled to a privilege of absolute secrecy if the proceedings talking about those matters are completely open to the public.

Realistically, though, those legal proceedings are months away, and most likely long past the election in November given the fact that both parties are likely to be spending a very long time filing dilatory motions, not to mention the fact that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is notoriously, and somewhat understandably, slow when it comes to civil litigation matters. Which essentially means that this matter is going to be hanging out there for months. How that helps move the investigation in what happened in the Fast & Furious operation I am not entirely sure.

Before the votes were cast on the contempt resolutions, Chris Cillizza argued that today’s contempt vote would more likely damage the reputation of  the political system itself (such as it is) than lead people to demand action on a story they’ve barely paid attention to:

Yes, partisan Democrats will cast today’s vote as yet another example of House Republicans trying to score political points by embarassing the Administration rather than focusing on what’s good for the American people.

And, yes, partisan Republicans will see today’s vote as the only choice House leaders had given the Administration’s decision to invoke executive privilege on the documents requested by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

But, even before this vote partisan Democrats weren’t voting for a Republican and partisan Republicans weren’t voting for a Democrat. They are just not in play from a political perspective.

For the small sliver of people who remain undecided, the vote “Fast and Furious” — which they almost certainly hadn’t heard about before today — simply reaffirms their belief that Washington is broken and neither party has any real solutions to fix it.

I tend to agree. Much like last year’s Debt Ceiling debacle, this episode is only likely to appear to people who aren’t heavily partisan and don’t follow politics on a regular basis as yet another example of how all of “those bums” aren’t really interested in working for their interests.

I feel the same way about Fast & Furious as I have from the beginning. The American people, and Congress, deserve the truth about what happened here, why it happened, and an accounting of what the damages are. Our neighbors in Mexico deserve it as well. However, the further along we get in this story, the more it seems like something that ought to be the subject calm and rational investigation is getting sucked up into hyperpartisan nonsense. That w0n’t help anyone discover the truth, and it won’t do any justice for Brian Terry or anyone else who died because of this debacle.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    The timing – the Supreme Court’s upholding ACA – makes the Republican seem petty and overly partisan (which they are).

    It was the first time in American history that Congress has imposed that sanction on a sitting member of a president’s cabinet.

    This is, even by House Republican standards, a new low (keeping in mind that Republicans investigated President Clinton for 6 years and impeached him).

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    Red meat for the NRA.

  3. Jr says:

    They had to do something…..they are 0-2 so far this week(Arizona and ACA).

  4. michael reynolds says:

    This is a parallel to the ludicrous impeachment of Bill Clinton – still more proof that Republicans are reckless, utterly partisan, dishonest and contemptuous of our institutions.

  5. rudderpedals says:

    Since it’s going to be delayed for some time the govt reform committee can look into related things like what’s going on there that 800,000 weapons are sold each year in Arizona

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    What’s it accomplish? It’s the next necessary step in the process that ends with the Justice Department giving the committee the documents they asked for in the first place.

    The next step is that the committee takes the Administration to court. It’ll stew there for a while and then, just before they lose, the Justice Department will turn over the documents.

  7. Tlaloc says:

    I have a standing offer to everyone on the right:
    I’ll take F&F serious if you do the same for, say, Iran Contra.

    Both involved weapons. One undeniably involved a presidential administration selling weapons to enemies of the state. That one also involves giving the proceeds of said sales to terrorists best known for the propensity for raping nuns. And to complete the trifecta, that same scandal was done in direct violation of laws passed by congress (namely that the contras were not to be supported).

    But the right has a pathological avoidance to cogitating on the matter of sainted Ronnie’s criminal, if not treasonous, administration. So tell me again why i should give a &^%$ about their wildly inflated baseless claims of corruption in Holder’s DoJ?

  8. Tlaloc says:

    What’s it accomplish? It’s the next necessary step in the process that ends with the Justice Department giving the committee the documents they asked for in the first place.

    The next step is that the committee takes the Administration to court. It’ll stew there for a while and then, just before they lose, the Justice Department will turn over the documents.

    Why should they when the documents being asked for have no relevance to the supposed issue at hand? As Mr. Reynolds says above this is exactly the Clinton impeachment- they start off investigating wild claims of wrong doing with little or no evidence, find nothing, and try to someone for something else to justify the whole exercise…

  9. anjin-san says:

    Fox has given the Republicans in Congress their marching orders – support the “scandal plagued Obama administration” meme. With Romney as their candidate, no reed is too slender to grasp. It also presents a headline to compete with the crushing defeat the GOP suffered in the Supreme Court.

  10. al-Ameda says:

    This should come as no surprise.

    Republicans have not considered the last 2 elected Democratic presidents to be legitimate, and they have demonstrated that they will do whatever it takes to remove them from office.

    The next election will determine if the public wants to hand over the entire federal government to a party that hates government, and wants to strip out the social safety net while cutting taxes and not reducing the deficit at all. Maybe we are ready to do that and jump off the cliff with Romney, Cantor and DeMint. I hope not, but ….

  11. Dexter says:

    In all of this there is an agent who was killed. His family deserves some answers. This is shameful behavior on the part of Atty. General Holder and anyone who is keeping answers from his family. They should get answers immediately without any further excuses or delay. Where is Obama on this?

  12. Modulo Myself says:

    @Tlaloc:

    Don’t forget the minor fact that the Contras were involved with drug trade.

  13. Herb says:

    Meh, contempt of congress….You know who else is guilty of that? The whole country.

    I do love this, though, from Rich Nugent:

    “A man died serving his country and we have a right to know what the federal government’s hand was in that. It’s clear this country somehow played a role in his death.”

    This guy isn’t looking for information. He’s looking for confirmation of what he already knows. How is that NOT a witchhunt?

  14. Modulo Myself says:

    The entire Fast and Furious operation, had it worked, would have taken a day’s worth of the gun trade out of circulation. That’s it. All of the hours, the work, the risks, and for basically nothing. That the US government gives people guns, a job, and a ton of prerogatives about victory for an entirely lost cause is the scandal.

  15. jukeboxgrad says:

    there is an agent who was killed. His family deserves some answers

    There’s no great mystery here. The true, real cause of his death, and the death of many others, is the stupid ‘war on drugs.’ So if you support that, look in the mirror.

    It exists because the prison industry is huge. Also, keeping lots of blacks and poor people from voting is a nice bonus. Also, the pharma industry likes to limit competition. This is why Prohibition 2.0 is alive and well, even though it regularly kills lots of people, like Terry.

  16. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    Wasn’t Ambrose Bierce the guy who wrote that a lawyer is one skilled in getting around the law? And isn’t Attorney General Holder a lawyer? So, I guess the question remaining to be answered is “How skilled?”.

  17. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    The next step is that the committee takes the Administration to court. It’ll stew there for a while and then, just before they lose, the Justice Department will turn over the documents.

    It will stew there far longer than a while. Criminal contempt is off of the table now, and I think that an excellent case could be made that inherent contempt is as well (not that Congress will go that route to begin with). That leaves civil contempt, which takes forever. Example, Miers & Bolten – it took over two years for Congress to get (some of, not all of) the documents it had demanded.

    By the time that it did, the Congress that demanded them in the first place had expired and the world had moved on. Nobody cared any longer.

    Folks need to start finding a way to wrap themselves around the overwhelming likelihood that this investigation will never produce a single indictment, much less any convictions.

  18. Jeremy R says:

    Looks like Dems on the oversight comittee may be starting to leak too instead of just allowing Issa staffer leaks to control the narrative:

    (AG emails) Get to the bottom of Fast and Furious

    For the past year and a half, some Republicans have promoted the idea that Holder and other top-level officials at the Justice Department knew federal agents in Operation Fast and Furious had engaged in a risky tactic known as “gun-walking.”

    Two of Holder’s emails and one from Cole appear to show that they hadn’t known about gun-walking but were determined to find out whether the allegations were true.

    The emails by Holder and Cole followed a hurried assurance by the Justice Department on Feb. 4, 2011, to Sen. Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. No such tactic was used, the Justice Department said in a letter to Grassley. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives “makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico,” the letter added. The letter was based on incorrect assurances supplied to the Justice Department by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Phoenix and by ATF officials. The department withdrew the Feb. 4 letter on Dec. 2, 2011, after documenting what had taken place not only in Operation Fast and Furious, but in three other gun-walking operations going back to 2006.

    On Feb. 23, aides passed along to the attorney general the CBS story alleging gun-walking, and the attorney general shot back, “We need answers on this. Not defensive BS. Real answers.”

    Five days later, Holder asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate.

    On March 3, Cole, the No. 2 official at the Justice Department, emailed his staff: “We obviously need to get to the bottom of this.”
    Holder was skeptical of any assurances.

    “I hope the AG understands that we did not allow guns to walk,” an official at the ATF’s Washington headquarters said on March 10 in an email that Holder’s aides forwarded to the attorney general.

    In a response, Holder wrote, “Do they really, really know” that there was no gun-walking?

    A day earlier, at Holder’s instruction, the Justice Department had sent out a directive to the field reinforcing a longtime Justice Department policy against gun-walking. The directive said that agents must not allow guns to cross the border into Mexico.

    In the wake of F&F both the AZ U.S. Attorney and his chief prosecutor have been forced to resign.

  19. HarvardLaw92 says:

    That w0n’t help anyone discover the truth, and it won’t do any justice for Brian Terry or anyone else who died because of this debacle.

    I’ve said this before on here, but I’ll repeat it again now:

    There is no political value to be mined from poking around in an ATF field office in backwater Arizona. If they can’t connect it to DC, they won’t care about it at all.

    Which makes all this faux rending of garments over Terry’s death from issa & the House leadership (I’m frankly floored that Issa hasn’t trotted the grieving relatives out already) that much more disgusting.

  20. Doubter4444 says:

    @Dexter:

    In all of this there is an agent who was killed. His family deserves some answers. This is shameful behavior on the part of Atty. General Holder and anyone who is keeping answers from his family. They should get answers immediately without any further excuses or delay. Where is Obama on this?

    Bullshit.
    Or at least bullshit on the crocodile tears.
    Were you as concerned about, say, Pat Tillman… ?

  21. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @al-Ameda: Oh, horse crap. I challenged folks before this to say when they WOULDN’T say the timing was politically motivated. When, in your opinion, would this vote been better timed to seem less political?

    And note that more Democrats voted for this than Republicans did for Obamacare. Hell, add in Republicans from both Houses vs. just House Democrats. Isn’t bipartisanship supposed to be a good thing?

  22. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Tlaloc: I’ll take F&F serious if you do the same for, say, Iran Contra.

    Piss off. Unlike you, my sense of morality is not up for negotiations. Especially for cheap political gains.

  23. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Herb: This guy isn’t looking for information. He’s looking for confirmation of what he already knows. How is that NOT a witchhunt?

    Again, are you talking about Issa or Fitzgerald? He found out almost immediately who leaked Valerie Plame’s identity — Richard Armitage — but kept going and going and going.

  24. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Doubter4444: Bullshit.
    Or at least bullshit on the crocodile tears.
    Were you as concerned about, say, Pat Tillman… ?

    So, how many dead Mexicans and US agents need to be killed before you actually give a rat’s ass?

  25. al-Ameda says:

    Unfortunately, Brian Terry was a victim of our decades long waste of resources we know as the War on Drugs.

    Frankly the Issa Committee should be more concerned with looking to pull the plug on the War on Drugs than on their politically motivated permanent inquiry and contempt citation of Eric Holder.

  26. steve says:

    @Dave- Not so sure they will win. If they are looking to get internal discussions about what happened after F &F was over, I can see the courts denying it. The Executive Branch should have the right to have internal deliberations kept confidential. Documents generated before and concurrent with F&F are another story and are at risk for disclosure.

    Steve

  27. anjin-san says:

    I have yet to hear a credible argument that even one of the people that were allegedly “killed” by F&F would yet live if F&F had never existed. These folks don’t have any trouble getting guns.

    All I am seeing is people trying to exploit yet more tragic deaths caused by the WOD.

    And I am not impressed by cocodile tears for dead brown people by folks who had a hardon for “Shock & Awe” and the highway of death…

  28. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @steve: So, by your logic, the Watergate committee should have only concerned itself with events that happened before June 17, 1972?

    Someone run that past Secretary Clinton — she worked for the investigating committee.

  29. Jeremy R says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    So, how many dead Mexicans and US agents need to be killed before you actually give a rat’s ass?

    If the fortune/cnn investigative piece is correct, they weren’t killed by “walked” guns, but by guns included in a database by the F&F team, the serial numbers found by arduous research and police work to identify likely straw purchases. According to the article they never encouraged the sale of those guns, they just collected serial numbers and then tried to assemble probable cause for arrests, which was essentially impossible due to ridiculously lax gun laws and overly cautious AZ prosecutors. So the irony is your question likely should be leveled at lawmakers and the NRA who have kept ATF underfunded, with only and acting head, and crippled by idiotically lax regulation.

  30. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @anjin-san: I have yet to hear a credible argument that even one of the people that were allegedly “killed” by F&F would yet live if F&F had never existed. These folks don’t have any trouble getting guns.

    So, it’s all right if we help kill people — innocent people — who “would have died anyway?”

    Please apply that reasoning to the aforementioned Pat Tillman case, please. He was a soldier in a combat zone — does it really matter how he died?

  31. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Piss off. Unlike you, my sense of morality is not up for negotiations. Especially for cheap political gains.

    Unless, of course, it involves wiretapping US citizens. Then it seems to get pretty flexible. 😀

  32. Doubter4444 says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:
    Spare me the pious self serving pap.
    You and other partisans don’t give a crap about this guy, and never did. (Cue the “you can’t read my mind dodge”).
    You are using as an issue to get at the president, and his administration.
    It’s been said by Doug, and James and most others: This is a political hunt for scalps.

    To the point of the F&F: my personal opinion is that it was a stupid idea, bungled. And yes people died, and that’s always a tragedy.
    But piss off with you fake concern and finger pulling over the victims.
    That’s the part that grates the most, that all this “concern” is all fake, and only an outrage because it allows you and your ilk to score points.
    To me that’s more despicable than calling bullshit on some gashing poseur.

  33. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    He was a soldier in a combat zone — does it really matter how he died?

    Wow … So it matters how a Border Patrol agent dies, but you don’t care how a soldier died?

    Your morality is getting more flexible by the minute.

  34. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Doubter4444: So, your honesty about your utter lack of compassion is morally superior to my allegedly feigned outrage?

    Interesting point. It ties in with some other political/psychological theories of mine.

  35. jukeboxgrad says:

    He found out almost immediately who leaked Valerie Plame’s identity — Richard Armitage

    You’re falsely implying there was only one leaker. Trouble is, there were at least three leakers. Yes, Armitage outed Plame to Novak. But Rove outed Plame to Cooper, and Libby outed Plame to Miller. Three wrongs don’t make a right. Fitzgerald knew that.

    I have already explained this to you, more than once. So you’re proving, again, that you’re not just a bullshitter; you’re an incorrigible bullshitter.

  36. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @jukeboxgrad: Armitage was the first. If anyone should have been tried for leaking, he should have been.

    And don’t you have some convicted domestic terrorists and perjurers to cover for, anyway? The way things are going for Mr. Kimberlin and his cronies, he needs all the apologists and sycophants he can get.

  37. jukeboxgrad says:

    If anyone should have been tried for leaking, he should have been.

    He cooperated with Fitzgerald. The others lied to him. Another inconvenient fact you repeatedly overlook.

    Kimberlin

    Your eagerness to change the subject is another adorable habit.

  38. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    And don’t you have some convicted domestic terrorists and perjurers to cover for, anyway? The way things are going for Mr. Kimberlin and his cronies, he needs all the apologists and sycophants he can get.

    Would anyone else like some TEA?

  39. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Question for you, Jenos:

    Congress has a pretty limited power to investigate, and an even more limited ability to compel prosecution.

    What it DOES have is the ability to situationally vest the power to appoint inferior officers in another branch (say, the judiciary) or another person (say a Cabinet member). One such inferior officer is an independent counsel (aka a special prosecutor), who has pretty broad powers not only to investigate, but also to compel prosecution.

    So why, if Congressman Issa is SO concerned with getting to the truth and having the allegedly guilty be punished, hasn’t Congress availed itself of this wonderful ability?

    Hint: it doesn’t give Republicans in Congress the talking point platform they’re after.

    (Note: it COULD have turned the matter over to the Office of the Independent Counsel, had it not allowed that office to die a quiet death in the lead up to the Plame affair, but oh well …)

  40. anjin-san says:

    Well, the Giants are on, and the spectacle of Jenos dancing on the graves of WOD victims is sickening, so I am signing off for tonight…

  41. Ron Beasley says:

    I opposed Holder as Attorney General – the last thing we needed after the financial collapse was a Wall Street attorney in that position. In addition to that the justice department has been incompetent under his leadership. But the thing is Issa is not an investigator he’s a partisan witch hunter. He’s a political hack and nothing more. This entire “investigation” has been political kabuki theater.

  42. Dazedandconfused says:

    @HarvardLaw92:
    Re:

    (I’m frankly floored that Issa hasn’t trotted the grieving relatives out already)

    Sir,

    Minor correction: He did that in the first couple of hearings.

  43. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Dazedandconfused:

    No, I mean for the TV press conference / redwhiteblue bunting draped hugfest and carwash fundraiser extravaganza for the cameras. Boehner could even be called upon to make an appearance & get teary eyed.

    (Note: if this has already occurred, I stand corrected, with my apologies).

  44. michael reynolds says:

    Jenos is getting hysterical. He’s seeing the one and only Obama “scandal” turn to vapor, so he’s ranting and flailing.

    Boehner buried this story on this particular day because he knows it’s b.s. but he has to pander to the imbecile wing (75%) of the GOP.

  45. bandit says:

    @michael reynolds: Like the sun rising in the East we can count on your argument consisting of juvenile name calling. In the immortal words of LiLo ‘Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter’

  46. mattb says:

    @bandit: That had to be irony… right?

    I mean you — out of all of our snark-and-run conservative commentators — calling someone out for juvenile name calling… please tell me it was irony.

    Please.

  47. mantis says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Unlike you, my sense of morality is not up for negotiations. Especially for cheap political gains.

    You have no sense of morality, and have demonstrated that fact over and over again.

  48. Moosebreath says:

    Jenos,

    “And note that more Democrats voted for this than Republicans did for Obamacare. ”

    And more than 5 times more than Republicans voted for contempt in the US attorney firing scandal, where the persons subpoenaed simply did not produce anything (as opposed to here, where Holder produced thousands of documents). What does that say about how Republicans view bipartisanship?

  49. gene willis says:

    wait a border gaurd was murdered by our government and the dems want to cover it up and make it go away.these people are like little children,if they dont get their way,they throw a tantrum and storm out.if repus feel the same way they stick it out regardless of the out come.soooo who is showing more contempt for the prosses,the dems who keep walking out? or the repubs who stay no matter what the out come will be?when the house was ruled by dems,the repus had to face the dems voting acts no matter what,and remained in there seats.when the house was taken over by the repus 2 years later and now the dems face a hard decision,they take a walk.sounds like wisconsin dems.