Contempt of Congress: What?

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Eric Holder is the first member of the Obama administration to be held in contempt of Congress . A House panel led by the GOP's chief White House instigator Darrell Issa voted along party lines against the attorney general, who has refused to turn over documents related to a botched gun operation in Mexico.

Being held in contempt by a committee means that the whole House will consider it as well, scheduled for next week. If the entire lower chamber votes against Holder, the possibility of impeachment arises.

Top Uses of Executive Privilege: Washington, Nixon, Obama

But it's complicated. If Congress wants to impeach Holder, it has to go through court, and through the Justice Department - the very agency Holder leads.

In that case, Holder could recuse himself because of an obvious conflict of interest.

"There's some obscure possibilities here," noted Frank Bowman, a University of Missouri law professor who has written about such legal matters.

Want more off-the-cuff politics? Check out OTUS on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @OTUSNews.

An opinion written in the Office of Legal Counsel during the Reagan administration by Ted Olson, later a U.S. solicitor general, concluded that the Justice Department isn't compelled to prosecute the attorney general because of the way the contempt statutes are written.

That could lead to a standoff between the agency and Republicans in Congress, noted Peter Shane, an expert of executive privilege at Ohio State.

While the legal outcome is unclear, the political result is regrettable for the White House, especially now that President Obama has invoked executive privilege in withholding documents from Congress. A showdown between lawmakers and Obama/Holder over secrecy could paint the next few months before Election Day in dark tones.

In a lengthy statement, Holder called Issa's contempt vote "an election-year tactic intended to distract attention."

A bunch of administration officials have been held in contempt since 1980, and the Congressional Research Service recently compiled a convenient list of those people. They include Clinton AG Janet Reno; W. Bush's Harriet Miers, Josh Bolten and Karl Rove; Clinton officials Jack Quinn and William H. Kennedy III; and Reagan AG William French Smith.

Holder, though, might be the first one to book an overseas trip the day of the vote. He's leaving for Copenhagen and Berlin today and coming back Friday (in time for the big contempt vote!).

Ariane de Vogue contributed reporting.

Get more pure politics at ABC and a lighter take on the news at