WASHINGTON — Setting up a potential constitutional confrontation, a GOP-controlled House panel voted Wednesday to cite Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress, just hours after President Barack Obama invoked executive privilege — for the first time — to withhold documents demanded by the committee.
The party-line vote was 23-17, following hours of caustic debate. The controversy goes next to the full House, where Republican Speaker John Boehner said there would be a vote next week unless there was some resolution in the meantime.
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, of California, said that “more than eight months after a subpoena” for the documents, Obama’s “untimely assertion” of executive privilege was no reason to delay the contempt vote. The documents concern how the Justice Department learned there were problems with an Arizona inquiry of gunrunning into Mexico.
No, it was just political, said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat. He called the vote “an extreme, virtually unprecedented action based on election-year politics rather than fact.”
The last Cabinet member to be cited by a congressional committee for contempt was Attorney General Janet Reno in President Bill Clinton’s administration. That was never brought to a follow-up vote in the full House.
Technically, if the full House approves the Holder contempt citation, there could be a federal criminal case against him, but history strongly suggests the matter won’t get that far.
Whether Congress could force the Justice Department to turn over the documents is a basic question. In the Watergate case, the Supreme Court ordered President Richard Nixon to turn over taped conversations to a criminal prosecutor. But in the Nixon case, the justices also found a constitutional basis for claims of executive privilege, leaving the door open for presidents to cite it in future clashes with Congress.
In the administration’s claim of executive privilege, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a letter to Issa, “We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the committee’s concerns and to accommodate the committee’s legitimate oversight interests.”
The White House reacted sharply to the committee action.
“Instead of creating jobs or strengthening the middle-class, congressional Republicans are spending their time on a politically motivated, taxpayer-funded election-year fishing expedition,” Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said.
During the committee’s year-and-a-half-long investigation, the department has turned over 7,600 documents about the conduct of Operation Fast and Furious. However, because the Justice Department initially told the committee falsely the operation did not use a risky investigative technique known as gun-walking, the panel has turned its attention from the details of the operation and is now seeking documents that would show how the department headquarters responded to the committee’s investigation.
In the operation, agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona abandoned the agency’s usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased. Instead, the goal of gun-walking was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers, who had long eluded prosecution, and to dismantle their networks.
Gun-walking has long been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Fast and Furious.
The agents in Arizona lost track of several hundred weapons in the operation.
Ordinarily, documents like those Issa is seeking are off-limits to Congress. In Operation Fast and Furious, the Justice Department’s initial incorrect denials are seen as providing justification for the additional demands.
Members of delegation respond
Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City
Lankford is a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt.
“Refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena comes with consequences including the loss of public trust and being held in contempt,” Lankford said
“My goal is to answer the following questions: who authorized the Fast and Furious actions; why were the actions authorized; who was in charge of operational oversight; and why were the actions allowed to continue? Now, we must also add the question, what is the administration trying to hide with such extraordinary methods?
“The administration has previously denied involvement in the Fast and Furious operation, but now they have invoked executive privilege. If no wrongdoing occurred, why would the administration ardently fight investigation? Executive privilege only increases the speculation that facts are being withheld to protect people rather than resolve the issue.
“We must make sure this type of operation and loose oversight never occurs again. We will hold this administration accountable for its misconduct.”
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore
“President Obama’s assertion of executive privilege can only be interpreted as a desperate attempt to hide the truth about Fast and Furious. This investigation could have been completed months ago, but the repeated refusal of Eric Holder’s Justice Department to cooperate has left the Oversight Committee with no choice but to pursue contempt charges.
“Congress and the Justice Department should be working together toward the common goal of providing answers to the American people and ensuring that a debacle like Fast and Furious never happens again. Today’s developments confirm that while the House Oversight Committee is seeking the truth, the White House is actively working to conceal it.”
Chris Casteel, Washington Bureau