The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 23-17 along party lines to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress today, pushing forward with the action even after the White House slapped an 11th-hour executive privilege on subpoenaed documents still sought in the Operation Fast and Furious investigation.
Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said an official communication from President Obama had not been received by Congress at the time of this morning’s meeting, but the committee had received a multi-page letter from Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole informing them of the action just minutes before the hearing, which was scheduled earlier this month.
“We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the Committee’s concerns and to accommodate the Committee’s legitimate oversight interests regarding Operation Fast and Furious,” Cole wrote. “Although we are deeply disappointed that the Committee appears intent on proceeding with a contempt vote, the Department remains willing to work with the Committee to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution of the outstanding issues.”
“Our purpose has never been to hold the attorney general in contempt,” Issa said in the hearing’s opening, noting that Holder was offered an accommodation to produce the requested documents on the Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal. “As late as last night his offer was only to give us a briefing and then only if we ended the investigation.”
“This untimely assertion by the Justice Department falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings,” the chairman said of the executive privilege.
“Members on both side of the dais have repeatedly said we owe it to the Terry family to get to the truth.”
Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who conferred with an aide during Issa’s opening statement, read from part of the document after noting that “we need to study this and make sure we understand what the president is asserting here.”
Among the reasons in the document was “such compelled disclosure would be inconsistent with the separation of powers in the Constitution.”
Cummings said that Holder didn’t ask the committee to end its investigation, but all he requested in return was “ending this contempt fight.”
“I heard what he said, it was very clear. It was a fair and reasonable offer,” Cummings said, then launching into an attack on Issa for “partisan and highly inflammatory personal attacks” on Holder.
“For the past year, you’ve been holding the attorney general to an impossible standard,” he said. “Last night you flatly rejected the attorney general’s offer. Instead you rushed to a prearranged press conference to declare the meeting a failure.”
“Mr. Chairman, it did not have to be this way,” Cummings added. “The position and prestige of this committee has been diminished.”
Other Democrats on the committee likewise lashed out at Issa for the contempt report and citation hearing. “I am horrified that you are going forward with this contempt charge when the president of the United States and administration have invoked executive privilege,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). “…I am offended personally by your calling the attorney general a liar.”
“I want to apologize to the American people for yet another show of ‘gotcha’ politics in this body,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.).
“With sensational charges, reckless accusations and by exploiting a tragedy, the majority tried to create the scandal they were looking for,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). “When one starts out with the presumption of guilt, of a cover-up – as the Majority did when they began this investigation – it’s extremely difficult to admit when one is proven wrong.”
But despite protestations that the assertion of executive privilege warranted postponing today’s vote, it was the Republican majority that backed the chairman and pushed the contempt citation through.
“I want to compliment our chairman for being so patient,” said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). “There’s no question in anybody’s mind that’s been involved in this investigation that the attorney general has been stonewalling this committee.”
“The president’s assertion of executive privilege creates even more questions,” Burton added.