Constitutional crises are rare in Washington, but Republicans are playing hardball in a subpoena battle with the White House. House Republicans insist a vote will occur the week of June 25 on a “Contempt of Congress” resolution against Attorney General Eric Holder if the White House refuses to turn over documents related to the now-discredited “Fast & Furious” gun-tracking program.
What’s at issue, what’s at stake and what can you do about it?
“Fast & Furious” was a follow-on to a Bush administration program that sought to track purchases of firearms back to drug lords in Mexico, and presumably capture big-time criminals rather than the low-level runners who make the purchases at U.S. gun outlets.
It didn’t work out very well, and media reports say more than half of 2,000 guns allegedly tracked through the program are unaccounted for. You can read The Atlantic‘s well-done explanation of the program here: http://bit.ly/L97mGV. Most dramatically, border patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered in a shootout with smugglers armed with guns that had been released through the “Fast & Furious” program.
The Obama administration claimed in a Feb. 4, 2011, letter that it knew nothing about “Fast & Furious,” saying such a program didn’t exist. Ten months later, Holder retracted that letter, said the program had been halted once top officials became aware of it, and subsequently turned over documents to House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who was investigating the affair.
But the White House has refused to turn over documents dated between Feb. 4, 2011, when it denied knowledge of the program, and the point at which the administration determined that the February letter was wrong. This week, President Obama asserted executive privilege over those communications.
What’s at stake? Plenty, politically. Republicans suspect a cover-up, suggesting that high-level officials including Holder, and maybe even the president, knew more about the program than they are letting on. And some Republicans charge the White House is provoking a constitutional crisis to take the public’s mind off the sour economy. The White House reverses that charge and says Republicans have mounted a politically inspired witch hunt and should be focusing on the economy instead.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) says he’s standing up for the family of Agent Terry, who have demanded a full accounting of what happened. Democrats say Boehner and Issa are grandstanding – and note that Issa has launched dozens of investigations against the administration that the White House claims are politically inspired. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) went even further, charging that Republicans were trying to handcuff Holder in the run-up to the election, so that the Department of Justice would be unable to protect the voting rights of minorities and others on Election Day.
Why won’t the White House give up the particular documents from that 10-month period? The official explanation is that those documents don’t relate directly to “Fast & Furious,” but rather are internal communications about how the executive branch should respond to Congress. That, officials say, makes this a separation of powers issue, and creates an imperative that Obama reject the House GOP demand.
Critics will point out Obama’s own criticism, when he served in the Senate, of President George W. Bush’s use of executive privilege. In addition, Obama appears to have expanded the definition of executive privilege to include communications among Justice Department officials; historically, the claim has been made to protect direct communications between the president and his advisers. But since the concept is not written into the Constitution, the lines are blurry.
What might happen next? Negotiations are continuing on a compromise over the documents. But if the vote goes forward, the House is likely to find Holder in contempt. And then what? Holder won’t be arrested – his own department would have to enforce the contempt charge and bring him up on charges. That’s not going to happen.
But House Republicans could ask the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia or the U.S. Supreme Court to demand that the administration turn over the documents. That happened in the Watergate scandal, and after threatening to resist – and provoke a constitutional meltdown — soon-to-be ex-President Richard Nixon gave Congress the documents that lawmakers wanted.
Where does the citizen come in, as Congress and the White House wage what’s commonly portrayed as a high-stakes showdown?
You can let your member of Congress know your opinion by clicking on the following link and finding the lawmakers who represent you: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/members.
And you can weigh in with the White House here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments.
It’s up to you, the voter, to decide whether this showdown is important after all. Tell members of Congress whether they should drop it or push ahead. Likewise, you can tell the president whether he should release all of the documents or stand firm.
Take action, voters!
About the Author (Author Profile)
CHARLIE MITCHELL. Editor and CEO. Mitchell has covered Washington for two decades. Days after Republicans recaptured the House in 1994, he helped launch a publication called Inside the New Congress. Mitchell went on to become the managing editor of National Journal’s Congress Daily and later editor-in-chief of Roll Call, two of the most respected congressional news outlets in Washington.