The House is due to vote Thursday on whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress — setting up a protracted, unnecessary and expensive court battle between coequal branches of government about the extent of executive privilege. To say this is a terrible misuse of Congress’s power is an understatement.
The dispute stems from a botched federal investigation into firearm trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border. In an operation named after a blockbuster movie, “Fast and Furious,” federal law enforcement used the scandalous tactic of letting guns “walk” in hopes of tracking them to cartels. Unfortunately, federal officials failed to follow the guns across the border. We have learned that the Bush administration tried the same tactic in an operation called Wide Receiver — with similar results. Some guns from Fast and Furious were among those found where a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, tragically lost his life.
This certainly merits vigorous congressional oversight. But after 16 months, 7,600 documents and nine hearings with the attorney general, the investigation has become unmoored. It is no longer an examination of what went wrong in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives under both administrations. Rather, it has devolved into the latest partisan attack on the Obama presidency.
Holder has bent over backward to comply with all the requests from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The attorney general only refused when Issa asked for materials such as internal deliberative communications, which the Justice Department is prohibited by law and privilege from providing.
GOP leadership has now made the absurd claim that assertion of executive privilege establishes that the White House was involved in the planning and aftermath of Fast and Furious. This fantasy shows a complete disregard for the well-established facts of this case and the law as argued by administrations from both parties. The White House assertion is backed by decades of precedent that has recognized the need for the president and his senior advisers to receive candid advice and information from their top aides.
So why is the House moving forward with this vote to hold the attorney general in contempt? Because the GOP leadership won’t take yes for an answer. It wants — and needs — a fight.
This contempt vote is over documents produced after February 2011 — a month after Fast and Furious reached its ignominious end. The papers could not shed light on what DOJ officials were thinking years earlier. It’s clear that this has morphed into an election-year hunt for a senior administration official’s scalp.
This is the type of politics that makes the American people fed up. It’s a lamentable distraction from the work we should be doing to get at the real problem — the mutually destructive trade of guns and drugs that has made our southern border less safe, resulted in the deaths of Americans and killed tens of thousands of Mexicans.
Pressing forward with the ATF rules requiring reporting when an individual buys more than one high-powered rifle along the border, as the administration is pursuing, or passing legislation to crack down on gun traffickers and those that provide them with weapons, as I have proposed, would give investigators and prosecutors the tools they have asked for and need.
It is difficult for Americans to grasp the scale and the brutality of the violence in Mexico — the battle against the drug cartels is a literal war for the Mexican authorities. But it’s a war fought with U.S. weapons. The cartels use the U.S. as their armory because of the easy availability of high-powered firearms.
For all the talk about Fast and Furious, Issa has been loath to discuss the steps we must take to stop the flow of weapons to some of this hemisphere’s most violent criminals.
The irony of this Republican plan to push ahead with a contempt citation is that it can only play out in a predictable scenario. The House will most likely pass the resolution on a party-line vote Thursday. The GOP majority will then go to court to obtain the documents. It will settle after months, or years, of costly litigation — and get exactly what Holder offered it last week.
But we will have lost an opportunity to put the politics aside and finally do something meaningful to fight the traffickers flooding Mexico with guns.
By: Rep Adam Schiff, Politico, June 26, 2012
When the Obama administration announced last week that it would invoke executive privilege and not release some documents related to the “Fast and Furious” operation, Mitt Romney’s campaign was quick to call the president a hypocrite. But in 2007, Romney endorsed a similar move by a Republican administration.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul attacked the Obama administration’s executive privilege claim last Wednesday in a statement, saying “President Obama’s pledge to run the most open and transparent administration in history has turned out to be just another broken promise.”
But as Congress sought to compel President George W. Bush’s administration to allow Karl Rove and Harriet Miers to cooperate with an investigation into the U.S. Attorney’s scandal, Romney could not have been more forceful in his support for the executive privilege claim. Asked by a conservative radio show how whether he agreed with President Bush’s decision to simply ignore the subpoenas, Romney said:
Yeah, he’s got a responsibility to protect executive privilege. That’s just part of preserving the powers of the presidency… He should do what he thinks is the right thing with regards to members of his team but preserve executive privilege.
By: Josh Israel, Think Progress, June 26, 2012
The system of checks and balances works best when the separate branches of government are inherently and proudly adversarial toward one another. But that can’t happen when partisanship defines when and how accountability moments play out.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa — the headline-hungry California Republican who on Wednesday engineered a committee vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt — forgot that essential rule.
He failed to build a credible case or a credible coalition for his initiative. After a day of increasingly ridiculous posturing, Issa secured the contempt citation he sought. But it came on a straight party-line vote that rendered the decision all but meaningless.
The chairman’s heavy-handed style invoted the reproach that the contempt vote was “nothing more than a political witch hunt,” as People for the American Way president Michael Keegan termed it.
“To be sure, Congress has a legitimate interest in investigating Operation Fast and Furious, but Chairman Issa and Republican majority on the Committee appear to be more interested in scoring political points than in getting to the bottom of what happened,” argued Keegan, who added that, “The hoops the Committee is demanding the Attorney General jump through illustrate that these contempt hearings are as partisan as they are extreme. Over the course of this ‘investigation,’ the Committee has ordered the A.G. to produce documents whose confidentiality is protected by federal law, has refused to subpoena Bush Administration officials to testify about their knowledge of the operation during their time in office, has refused to allow public testimony from officials whose testimony counters Issa’s partisan narrative, and has repeatedly rejected the A.G.’s efforts to accommodate the committee, making compliance all but impossible.”
Issa’s actions undermined not just his own credibility but any sense that he and his allies might be acting in defense of — or with any regard for — the Constitution.
There is no reason to suggest that Holder is above criticism for his actions as Attorney General. He has been called out by Democrats as well as Republicans on a variety of issues. And he has not always managed his response to Issa’s abuses well. Nor should anyone who values transparency and government oversight be pleased when a president determines that it is necessary to invoke “executive privilege” in a fight with Congress, as Barack Obama has done to thwart Issa’s demands.
But it is Issa whose actions have been contemptible. He is demanding deliberative documents that are ordinarily off-limits to Congress, a big ask, yet he has not built a credible coalition of supporters for the demand. And when the details of the documents and the issues involved are laid out—along with the offers by Holder to brief the committee—it quickly becomes evident that the committee chairman is so unwilling to compromise that he won’t take “yes” for an answer.
Issa has failed to respect the House as an institution, or to make even the most basic moves to organize the chamber for a challenge to the executive branch. Instead, he’s gone to hyper-partisan and divisive extreme, redesigning the Oversight Committee’s website to look like a Fox News “alert”—with dubious images of Holder and headlines reading “Contempt” splashed all over the page.
Indeed, says Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings, the committee’s ranking Democrat, Issa has pursued Holder throughout the wrangling over the bungled “Fast and Furious” program with his “mind made up” to provoke. Cummings has argued that the tensions between the committee and the Department of Justice—which extend from Issa’s demands for documents relating to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona’s approach to intercepting weapons believed to be illicitly purchased, as part of a scheme to track weapons to high-level arms traffickers—could have been resolved easily. Instead, he says, Issa has evidenced “no intention” of cooperating with the Department of Justice and the Obama administration to achieve a resolution.
Instead, argues Cummings, Issa has resorted to “partisan and inflammatory personal attacks.”
For the partisan punditocracy, Cummings’s comments will be dismissed as tit-for-tat politics. But that misses the point of Issa’s responsibility as chairman of a key committee.
His first job was to get at least some Democrats to work with him, just as former House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter Rodino, D-New Jersey, organized Republican support for Democratic moves to hold President Nixon to account during the Watergate era; just as former House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, tried to get Democrats to back Republican attempts to challenge President Clinton in the 1990s.
Could Issa have built a bipartisan coalition in favor of transparency and accountability?
The current Oversight and Government Reform Committee has many maverick Democrats, independent thinkers and straight shooters on its membership roll. Indeed, if ever there was a House Committee that was well-suited for a reasonable bipartisan push on behalf of White House accountability, this is it.
Several Democrats on the Committee have records of breaking with and criticizing the Obama administration when they disagree with the president and his appointees. Some, like Tennessee’s Jim Cooper, have done so from the right. Others, like Vermont’s Peter Welch, have done so from the left.
Then there is Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, the most independent of House Democrats, a frequent critic of the current administration and a member with a long history of fighting for open government, transparency and checks on the executive branch. Kucinich, recently defeated for reelection in a Democratic primary but still highly engaged, was a natural ally for Issa, if the chairman’s push was going to be a serious and legitimate challenge to executive overreach.
Kucinich has challenged Holder before, and he will do so again.
Yet, as tensions spiked Wednesday, Kucinich was not at Issa’s side.
Instead, the Ohio Congressman was calling for postponement of any contempt vote.
“It would be a shame to produce a titanic contest between two branches of government,” said Kucinich, who objected that there was no need for a contempt vote when it was so obvious that differences could be quickly and easily resolved.
The shame is on Issa. He knew full well that he was making a rare demand of an administration with which he has tangled before. He knows that to make such a demand, he needed to attract support from independent Democrats. He could have done so. But Issa chose instead to play purely partisan politics.
That’s damaging to the committee’s credibility.
That’s damaging to Congress.
That’s damaging to the Constitution, which establishes a system of checks and balances that is essential to the right functioning of the republic. If Issa respected Congress and the Constitution, he would have raised a credible challenge to the White House. Instead, he played politics. Badly.
By: John Nichols, The Nation, June 20, 2012