Yesterday, the Republican-controlled House Oversight Committee moved forward with contempt charges against Attorney General Eric Holder, approved 23-17 in committee strictly along party lines. As early as next week the vote will move to the floor of the House, and will likely be approved by the GOP-dominated chamber.
The contempt charges stem from the botched Fast and Furious Operation, originally known as Operation Gunrunner, put in place by President George W. Bush. Federal stimulus funds were provided to the Phoenix, Arizona division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to sell AK-47's and Barrett .50 Cal sniper rifles to the Sinaloa, El Teo, and La Familia cartels in an effort to gain intelligence on their illegal drug and arms smuggling activity. When the "gunwalking" strategy was put into place in early 2010, it was legally allowed under ATF regulations and approved by both the Justice Department and Dennis Burke, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona. But, just 10 months later, U.S. Border Patrol agent Brain Terry was killed by illegal immigrants in a firefight on the Arizona border. Subsequently, two automatic weapons traced to the Fast and Furious program were found in the vicinity of the altercation, though the bullet that killed Terry could not be matched to either.
When the media tied news of the incident to the government-funded Fast and Furious program, the public outcry was understandably fierce. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was quick to begin an investigation into the operation and whether there were any illegal or negligent actions taken by high-level justice officials during it's course. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder produced thousands of documents relating to the ATF operation at the request of the House committee after he ended the operation in January; in those documents was a February 4, now-redacted and unattributed letter from the Department of Justice to ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-IA), containing inaccuracies concerning knowledge of and tactics used in Fast and Furious. This ambiguous February 4 letter led Issa and the House Oversight Committee to request further documents surrounding it's preparation by the DOJ.
It was at this point that the Holder and Darrell , and by proxy the Executive and Legislative branch stand-off began. Through a series of investigations, hearings, meetings, and interviews, Holder testified about and described the requested documents to the House Committee, but refused to submit any more documentation stating he believed the DOJ had complied with all committee requests. A subpoena from the committee soon followed for Holder to turn over all documents relating to the February 4 letter.
Yesterday, however, the attorney general sent an executive privilege request to President Obama. The executive privilege, which was used fourteen times by President Clinton and six times by President Bush, grants the president power to hold information to review internally. Yesterday morning, just before the 10 a.m. contempt hearings began, the executive privilege order came down to Holder and the House Committee, essentially removing any possible responsibility that Holder or the DOJ had. Six hours later, the GOP-dominated House Oversight Committee ignored the executive order, and voted in favor of recommending a Contempt of Congress charge on Holder to the House as a whole.
In Congressional politics, I have found a very strong correlation between purely political congressional action and party-line voting. Darrell has continually stated the contempt charge is about document production, and not about assigning blame or political maneuvering in an election year. But ten minutes after the committee decision was announced, Speaker John Boehner -- who never attended the House hearings dealing with Fast and Furious -- poked his head out from under the rock and claimed in a press statement that the "decision to invoke executive privilege implies that White House officials were either involved in the Fast and Furious operation or the cover-up that followed." There goes that claim, Darrell.
The decision to hold Holder in contempt of Congress is obviously just another attempt by the GOP and Republican machine as a whole to attack the president from as many different angles as possible as the election draws nearer. As the latest Bloomberg poll results show, Romney is trailing Obama by 13 points.The obvious problem for the Republicans in the House Committee, and the House as a whole, is that the executive order in essence protects Holder from any prosecution. So if no outcome of this witch hunt ends with the prosecution, firing, or resignation of Holder, what do the House Committee and Congress have to gain by pursuing irrelevant charges besides trying to score political points in an election year? The easy answer is nothing, which could help explain their historically low 16% approval rating.
It would be naive to think any action taken in Washington in the next four months is not made to directly have an impact on the election. Republicans have been campaigning for 2012 since 2008 -- trying to knock the president down a peg whenever and however possible -- so it seems logical that this news and subsequent GOP press releases are intended to draw out the Fast and Furious battle and drag President Obama into the trenches with Attorney General Holder. Since the 2010 midterms, House Republicans have had an overinflated sense of self-importance, and maybe understandably so when so many seats went blue-to-red. And with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney so uneasy on taking specific policy fights to the national discourse, Republicans have instead relied on one-half of Congress to block any Democrat proposal, and use all means necessary to push back against the President. Time and time again, Romney has insisted this election is solely a referendum on Obama and the economy, so the task of muddying the presidential waters falls to Congressional Republicans. This one, however, will turn out to be a whiff.