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In Historic Vote, House Finds Attorney General in Contempt of Congress
Posted By Elizabeth Murphy On June 28, 2012 @ 4:59 pm In News | Comments Disabled
In a day of extremes, President Barack Obama celebrated the Supreme Court’s upholding of his health care law, while his chief law enforcement official was found in contempt of Congress.
The House of Representatives voted 255-67, to find Eric Holder in criminal contempt of Congress in what has become an explosive dispute over documents related to Operation Fast and Furious, a failed gun-tracing investigation along the southwest border. Seventeen Democrats voted with Republicans to hold Holder in contempt. Two Republicans – Reps. Steven LaTourette of Ohio and Scott Rigell of Virginia – broke with their party and voted against contempt.
He is the first Attorney General ever to face such a sanction, even though the president asserted executive privilege over the documents sought by the panel.
The episode is one for the history books, but will likely not go much beyond the chamber doors, as Holder’s own Justice Department isn’t likely to enforce the criminal citation. However, the House intends to pursue a civil complaint against Holder as well. The civil action was authorized by the House by a vote of 258-95, with 21 Democrats supporting the measure.
The two parties cast the issues in very different lights. Democrats noted the irony of the day’s events, with many praising the Supreme Court’s health care law ruling while condemning the contempt action an embarrassment for the House. Republicans pointed to slain U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry as their motivation for pursuing the matter. Terry was killed in a 2010 shootout in Arizona by Mexican bandits. Two guns that U.S. authorities had lost track of in the Fast and Furious investigation were found at the scene of his killing.
“Republican leaders are about to plunge into the history books by taking one of the most extreme and partisan actions the House of Representatives has ever seen,” said House Oversight Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) “Today’s contempt vote is the culmination of one of the most highly politicized and reckless congressional investigations in decades.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the Justice Department’s chief antagonist through the year-and-a-half of investigation by his committee, propped a large photo of Terry behind him as he closed out his remarks on the floor.
“This is the first time in 200 years that an attorney general has flatly refused to give information related to lies and a cover-up exclusively within his jurisdiction,” Issa said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who signaled she would walk-out on the vote in protest, said Republicans have “exploited very unfortunate circumstances” with their investigation, chalking the vote up to an election year ploy to cast aspersions on the president. The California Democrat called the contempt vote a “heinous act.” Many House Democrats walked out of the chamber before the vote, but 17 Democrats voted for the measure (presumably under pressure from the National Rifle Association.)
“Just when you think you have seen it all, just when you think they cannot possibly go any further over the edge, they come up with something like this,” Pelosi said. “It’s stunning, it really is… How far will they go? Have they no limits? Apparently not.”
House Speaker John Boehner said the Terry family deserves to have answers and that it’s the House’s constitutional duty to find out what happened.
“I don’t take this matter lightly,” the Ohio Republican said. “I… hoped it would never come to this. But no Justice Department is above the law and no Justice Department is above the Constitution.”
Thursday’s vote is the first time a sitting cabinet member has been cited with a contempt of Congress resolution. In 2008, the full House — then led by Democrats — voted to find former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten in contempt of Congress in a probe of what the Justice Department Inspector General found to be politically motivated hiring practices in the George W. Bush administration’s Justice Department. Then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey refused to pursue the contempt charges in criminal court, saying Miers’ and Bolten’s non-compliance with the subpoenas did not constitute a crime. The Justice Department did not view it as a crime because Bush had asserted executive privilege over the information Congress had subpoenaed, just as Obama has done in this case.
The House pursued the charges in civil court, but in 2009 the two sides reached a compromise and the episode quietly ended.
Most similar to this case is that of President Bill Clinton’s Attorney General Janet Reno. In 1998 the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted to cite Reno with contempt of Congress in connection with the disclosure of documents related to Clinton’s impeachment. The full House never voted on the resolution, however, and the contempt measure did not move forward.
Thursday’s vote came quickly, with the House Oversight Committee voting along party lines just last week to advance the contempt resolution to the full House. There were last-ditch efforts by Issa and committee Republicans and the Justice Department to come to a compromise, but none yielded any results, catapulting the contempt vote full-speed ahead.
The matter centered on a gun-walking operation lead by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office. Agents allegedly allowed thousands of guns to “walk” over the border into Mexico in an attempt to gain intelligence on Mexican drug cartels. The operation backfired, however, when the agents lost track of hundreds of guns. Two guns from the operation were found at the scene of a shootout between Border Patrol Agents and Mexican bandits. Agent Terry was killed in the gunfire.
Issa and many of the Republicans on his committee have hammered Holder for not turning over documents related to the department’s handling of the investigation that remain under subpoena. The Justice Department has said that the disclosure of certain documents could harm the integrity of ongoing prosecutions.
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