The House Government Oversight and Reform Committee voted right along party lines to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over documents requested in connection with the ‘Fast and Furious’ probe. The 23-17 vote came on the heels of the Obama administration invoking executive privilege to shield from disclosure some documents requested by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif) in his crusade against Holder. It was the first time the administration invoked executive privilege in connection with a congressional investigation.
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.
Congressional Democrats made it clear they saw this as a purely political campaign and not a serious inquiry into the happenings at DOJ. “We’ve been holding the attorney general to an impossible standard,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the panel’s ranking Democrat. “You accused him of a ‘cover-up’ for protecting documents he was prohibited by law from producing. You claimed that he ‘obstructed’ the committee’s work by complying with federal statutes passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president,” Cummings said. “And earlier this month, you went on national television and called the attorney general — our nation’s chief law enforcement officer — a liar.”
The panel’s actions will be reported to the full House, where Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and GOP leaders are expected to schedule a floor vote soon. If passed by the full 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 for prosecution.
After the vote Holder issued the following statement:
In recent months, the Justice Department has made unprecedented accommodations to respond to information requests by Chairman Issa about misguided law enforcement tactics that began in the previous administration and allowed illegal guns to be taken into Mexico. Department professionals have spent countless hours compiling and providing thousands of documents — nearly 8,000 — to Chairman Issa and his committee. My staff has had numerous meetings with congressional staff to try and accommodate these requests and yesterday, I met with Chairman Issa to offer additional internal Department documents and information that would satisfy what he identified as the Committee’s single outstanding question.
Unfortunately, Chairman Issa has rejected all of these efforts to reach a reasonable accommodation. Instead, he has chosen to use his authority to take an extraordinary, unprecedented and entirely unnecessary action, intended to provoke an avoidable conflict between Congress and the Executive Branch. This divisive action does not help us fix the problems that led to this operation or previous ones and it 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.
Simply put, any claims that the Justice Department has been unresponsive to requests for information are untrue. From the beginning, Chairman Issa and certain members of the Committee have made unsubstantiated allegations first, then scrambled for facts to try to justify them later. That might make for good political theater, but it does little to uncover the truth or address the problems associated with this operation and prior ones dating back to the previous Administration.
I have spent most of my career in law enforcement and worked closely with brave agents who put their lives on the line every day. I know the sacrifices they make, so as soon as allegations of gunwalking came to my attention – and well before Chairman Issa expressed any interest in this issue — I ordered the practice stopped. I made necessary personnel changes in the Department’s leadership and instituted policy changes to ensure better oversight of significant investigations. And, I directed the Department’s Inspector General to open a comprehensive investigation. That investigation is ongoing, and the American people and Congress can count on it to produce a tough, independent review of the facts.
When Chairman Issa later began his own investigation, I made it clear that the Department would cooperate with all appropriate oversight requests, while still adhering to our legal obligations to protect information involving ongoing law enforcement investigations, legally-protected grand jury material and other sensitive information whose disclosure would endanger the American people or our agents investigating open cases.
The American people deserve better. That is why, I will remain focused on, and committed to, the Justice Department’s mission to protect the rights, safety, and best interests of my fellow citizens and to stand by my brave colleagues in law enforcement.
In other news, Congressional Republicans advanced exactly zero bills to create jobs or ease the tax burdens on the middle class. You know, priorities.
Photo from ryanjreilly via flickr.