In an extraordinary move, a congressional committee voted today to find Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to provide documents to congressional investigators from the Fast and Furious gun walking operation. Earlier this morning, the White House invoked executive privilege over the documents the committee subpoenaed more than eight months ago.
In a strictly party-line vote, the House committee on Oversight and Government Reform approved the citation 23 to 17, sending the resolution on to the full House for future consideration as early as next Tuesday.
"While we had hoped it would not come to this, unless the Attorney General reevaluates his choice and supplies the promised documents, the House will vote to hold him in contempt next week," House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor wrote in a joint statement following the committee's vote. "If, however, Attorney General Holder produces these documents prior to the scheduled vote, we will give the Oversight Committee an opportunity to review in hopes of resolving this issue."
Holder is not actually in contempt of Congress unless the full House approves the resolution, but he would become the first U.S. attorney general held in contempt of Congress if the vote passes.
"I still believe that a settlement, rendering the process of contempt unnecessary, is in the best interest of the Justice Department, Congress, and those most directly affected by Operation Fast and Furious," Rep. Darrell Issa, the chairman of the committee, wrote in a statement after the vote. "I urge Attorney General Holder and President Obama to reconsider their decision to withhold documents that would allow Congress to complete its investigation."
At issue are about 1300 pages of documents that detail the Department of Justice's communications following a DOJ letter to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, which falsely claimed that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms made every effort to stop guns from going to Mexico after Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry's death was linked to guns from the ATF operation. In an effort to possibly find a cover-up within the administration, Issa is seeking documents on how DOJ reacted as the gun scandal unfolded between February and December 2011.
Tuesday Holder made a last-ditch effort to avoid the contempt proceedings, making a rare visit to Capitol Hill to meet with Issa and other top lawmakers. But his offer to have DOJ brief the lawmakers on the information in the documents was rejected by Issa.
"Our purpose has never been to hold the attorney general in contempt. Our purpose has always been to get the information the committee needs to complete its work that it is not only entitled to but obligated to do," Issa, R-Calif., said as he began the proceedings. "If the Justice Department had delivered the documents they freely admitted they could deliver, we wouldn't be here today."
The start of the proceedings was delayed about 20 minutes after news broke just before it was scheduled to begin that the White House had invoked executive privilege. At he began, Issa said the executive privilege maneuver "falls short of any reason to delay today's proceedings.
"I claim not to be a constitutional scholar, but the House is currently working to find out what assertions may in fact arrive, and we will take notice of them," he said. "The attorney general has refused to cooperation, offering to provide subpoenaed documents only if the committee agrees in advance to close the investigation. No investigator would ever agree to that."
Members on both sides of the aisle called the need for contempt proceedings "a sad day" for Congress and the American people, and Democrats repeatedly decried what they view as a "political witch-hunt" against President Obama during an election year.
"I am astounded that today we are sitting here weighing whether to hold the attorney general of the United States, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in our country, in contempt of Congress," Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said. "It shouldn't be a political witch hunt against the attorney general of our country and our president in an election year."
"It did not have to be this way. It really didn't," lamented Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee,. "We could have postponed today's vote, accepted the attorney general's offer and worked with the department to obtain additional documents and information. Instead, by not honoring the Constitution's charge to seek accommodation when possible, the position and prestige of this committee has been diminished, and the result should concern us all."
But after eight months of refusal to comply with the committee's subpoena, Republicans on the panel charged that the administration was running out the clock on Congress and said that the assertion of executive privilege opens up even more questions about who knew what and when.
"There's no question in anybody's mind that's been involved in this investigation that the attorney general has been stonewalling this committee," Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., said. "Why would the president claim executive privilege unless there was something very, very important that he felt should not be made known to this committee and possibly to the public? "
"Who knew about this, how high up did it go, did it go to the attorney general or even the president of the United States, and when did they know it?," Burton continued. "This committee needs to find that out, especially since we had not only weapons going across the border, but a border patrol agent murdered with those weapons."
Democrats questioned why there was a need to rush forward with contempt proceedings now, and implored Issa to delay the vote to avoid the unprecedented action. But it was clear that the patience of many Republican lawmakers had worn thin.
"It's been over a year," Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., complained. "If Congress has time to look into Major League Baseball, the [Bowl Championship Series], and invites Stephen Colbert to come to a committee hearing, surely to goodness we have time to get answers on a fundamentally flawed, lethal investigation like Fast and Furious."
Gowdy noted that Democrats repeatedly point to gun walking that may have occurred under previous administrations, but he welcomed a full inquiry into any officials that ever participated in the scheme and dismissed the notion that previous operations excuse Holder from accountability in Fast and Furious.
"Let me be very clear: bring them all. Bring everybody before this committee, anyone who has information about gun walking, bring the information before the committee because gun walking is wrong no matter what administration does it," he said. "Bring the Republicans, and bring the Democrats, and bring the Bull Moose Party, and bring the Whigs. Bring them all, but that does not mitigate this attorney general's responsibility to comply with a subpoena from Congress."
After news spread that the White House had invoked Executive Privilege, Boehner issued a statement through his spokesman that suggested the administration was either lying about the president's involvement or involved in a cover-up.
"Until now, everyone believed that the decisions regarding 'Fast and Furious' were confined to the Department of Justice. The White House 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," Michael Steel, spokesman for the speaker, wrote in a statement. "The Administration has always insisted that wasn't the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?"
The full House of Representatives is expected to consider the contempt resolution as soon as next Tuesday, when lawmakers return to session after a four day weekend.