For the first time in the history the United States House of Representatives has voted to hold a sitting Attorney General in contempt of congress, finding Eric Holder “guilty” of withholding documents pertinent to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigation into the “Fast and Furious” gun-running fiasco.
Holder now joins the more than 80% of Americans who hold Congress in contempt.
Seventeen Democrats joined 238 Republicans to vote in favor of House Resolution 711, for a final vote tally of 255-to-67 in favor of finding the Attorney General in contempt – even though President Barack Obama invoked his “executive privilege” to shield Holder and the documents. It was the first time Obama has used executive privilege. Almost every U.S. president has used executive privilege to deny Congress access to information – George Washington was the first in 1796 when he denied the House access to documents relating to the treaty John Jay negotiated with Great Britain. Ronald Reagan used the privilege three times. Bill Clinton used it a whopping 14 times. George W. Bush invoked the rule six times.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R – Lake Elsinore CA), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, spearheaded the effort to find Holder in contempt. Issa contends that Holder not only withheld subpoenaed documents, but also lied to Congress about his involvement in the gun-running scheme that ended with a border patrol agent being murdered with a weapon the government supplied to Mexican drug lords. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is also suspected of lying to Congress in a letter claiming they had no involvement in the “Fast and Furious” operation.
The contempt vote is unprecedented, and seen by many as a political tactic to attempt to overshadow administration victories in the courts on immigration and health care issues – in particular the recent Supreme Court decisions on Arizona’s immigration law and the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Some have suggested there may be racist overtones, as Holder is black and has been a particular target of Obama’s opposition throughout his first term.
Whatever the motivation, the contempt vote is unlikely to have any actual consequences for Holder, and merely sets the stage for a showdown in the courts to attempt to enforce the House subpoenas for documents. In 1974 the Supreme Court denied a claim of Executive Privilege by then-President Richard Nixon, although in that decision it upheld the general validity of the Executive Privilege power of the presidency.