House Oversight Committee Holds Eric Holder In Contempt
The stage is set for a showdown between the Executive and Legislative Branches.
After a day long hearing that started off with a bang as the the Committee reacted to the Executive Branch’s assertion of Executive Privilege eight months after a subpoena was issued, the House Government Reform And Oversight Committee voted along party lines this afternoon to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in Contempt Of Congress:
A House panel voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt for failing to cooperate with a congressional inquiry into Operation “Fast and Furious,” hours after President Obama asserted executive privilege over related documents.
On a party-line decision, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 23 to 17 to hold Holder in contempt for failing to share documents related to the operation run out of the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between 2009 and 2011, with the backing of the U.S. attorney in Phoenix. The move makes Holder the first member of Obama’s Cabinet held in contempt by a congressional committee.
The panel’s actions will be reported to the full House, where Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and GOP leaders have scheduled a floor vote for next week unless Holder hands over the documents before then. If passed by the House, the matter would then move to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald C. Machen Jr., who is an employee of the Justice Department.
After the vote, Holder called the vote a “divisive action” that “does nothing to make any of our law enforcement agents safer.”
“It’s an election-year tactic intended to distract attention — and, as a result — has deflected critical resources from fulfilling what remains my top priority at the Department of Justice: Protecting the American people,” Holder said.
Obama’s decision to withhold the documents — his first use of executive privilege in response to a congressional investigation — and the House panel’s vote quickly intensified a long-simmering feud between the White House and Republican lawmakers and set up a clash over the extent of presidential power that may take months to resolve.
Ahead of the vote, Holder said in a letter to Obama that sharing the Fast and Furious documents “would raise substantial separation of powers concerns and potentially create an imbalance in the relationship” between Congress and the White House.
Releasing the documents “would inhibit candor of such Executive Branch deliberations in the future and significantly impair the Executive Branch’s ability to respond independently and effectively to congressional oversight,” Holder wrote.
Adding to the administration’s defiance, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer accused Republicans Wednesday of orchestrating a “taxpayer-funded election-year fishing expedition.”
“Given the economic challenges facing the country,” Pfeiffer said in a statement, “we believe that House Republicans should work with the rest of Congress and the president to create more jobs, not more political theater.”
Executive privilege has been invoked throughout U.S. history by presidential administrations to preserve the confidentiality of information in the face of legislative inquiries. The privilege is qualified, not absolute, and can be overturned in courts. But disputes over access to information rarely reach the courts and are most often resolved through political negotiations, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Before the vote, oversight chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said Obama’s move “falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings.”
“If the Justice Department had delivered the documents they freely admitted they could have delivered, we wouldn’t be here today,” Issa said.
Aides said Issa learned of the president’s decision just minutes before the hearing began in an e-mail from Justice Department officials.
Congressional committees have held Executive Branch officials in criminal contempt of congress roughly a dozen times in the last 40 years. Usually, administration officials have cited executive privilege in refusing to share information, but eventually turn over requested documents before congressional committees reach the final stages of contempt proceedings, according to the CRS.
House Speaker Boehner has already said that he intends to proceed with a vote by the full House next week, so if this matter is going to be resolved it’s going to have to happen in relatively short order. Otherwise, assuming the House approves the Committee’s the contempt finding at which point the matter would be referred to the United States Attorney for the District Of Columbia, and if he doesn’t act then the House would then be free to authorize the Committee to file its own civil complaint in United States District Court, presumably with the assistance of Special Counsel which would represent Congress in the matter. Technically, the Contempt finding would also empower Congress to order the House Sergeant At Arms to arrest Holder and imprison him until he purges himself of the contempt, but the odds of that happening are pretty much nil. As noted above, the most common outcome in these types of cases is for the dispute between the Executive and Legislative Branches to end up being resolved in the end. Perhaps that will happen here, but given the way things have gone between the two branches for the last six years or so it’s also entirely likely that neither side will be willing to blink and we’ll be headed to Court.
The political reaction to all of this, and to the President’s assertion of Executive Privilege, is about what you’d expect it to be. The right is outraged over what they see as Administration stonewalling in a Congressional investigation of what was, at the very least, the most incompetently run law enforcement operation in recent American history. The left sees it as nothing more than a political witch hunt. In fact, just like conservatives never really seemed to think Iran-Contra was a big deal in the late 80s, I haven’t seen a single commentator on the left who is even willing to admit that Operation Fast And Furious, which resulted in thousands of guns purchased by the ATF crossing the border and disappearing in to Mexico where they have been used to kill unknown numbers of Mexicans and at least one Federal Agent, is even something worth investigating. That’s unfortunate, because it really shouldn’t matter who was President when this happened. Something went very wrong here, either because of the ATF was abjectly incompetent or because someone somewhere is corrupt. The American people, the family of Brian Terry, and the people of Mexico, deserve to know what happened here, and we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Instead of being taken seriously, though, this is being treated as just another political battle, which means that it’s likely to happen again.