Bid to punish Bush aides may fail
The House and Senate have escalated efforts in the US attorneys case, but the White House may delay a resolution.
Congress is running out of time – but not options – in a standoff with the Bush White House over executive privilege.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In a rare move, the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines this week to cite two top presidential aides with criminal contempt. And in an escalation of the standoff, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday issued subpoenas to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and his deputy, J. Scott Jennings, to also testify under oath and provide documents on the firings of nine US attorneys last year.
The moves are part of an ongoing congressional probe into whether improper political influence was the motive for the firings.
"There is a cloud over this White House and a gathering storm," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"I hope they will reconsider their course and end their coverup so that we can move forward together to repair the damage done to the Department of Justice and to the American people's trust and confidence in federal law enforcement," he said. The Senate has given the White House a deadline of Aug. 2 to respond.
Barring a compromise, the next move on the House side is a vote of the full House, likely after the August recess.
At issue is whether Congress can compel the president to allow top aides to answer questions under oath. The House Judiciary panel issued subpoenas for White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to answer questions about last year's US attorney firings.
Responding to a similar probe on the Senate side, the president has offered to allow Mr. Rove and other officials to answer questions not under oath and without an official transcript. Responding to the new subpoenas on Thursday, deputy White House press secretary Tony Fratto urged Congress to accept the president's accommodation. "Every day this Congress gets a little more out of control," he said.
Democrats in Congress say they need this testimony and related documents to determine whether the firings were for improper motives that could undermine public confidence in the rule of law.
But even if lawmakers approve these contempt citations, President Bush can tie up the matter in legal red tape until the end of his term. Moreover, both sides have a lot to lose if the issue is finally settled in court, rather than through political compromise.
"We're talking about a matter that is at the heart of executive power: the president's ability to receive confidential advice on an executive power that is indisputably his," says Douglas Kmiec, a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and former Reagan administration official. "But this constitutional principle has always existed in a quiet, untested tension with Congress's ability to investigate. If the law courts pronounce in a black-and-white fashion, they will advantage one side or another going into the future."
Until 1857, the House and Senate conducted their own in-house trials whenever they felt that the executive branch or journalists abused congressional powers. In 8 of 14 cases since 1795, the target of the contempt citation either agreed to testify and produce documents or was punished, according to a July 24 report by the Congressional Research Service.
But the process was cumbersome and the penalties – including being jailed inside the Capitol – only lasted as long as the Congress was in session. So, Congress created another option: a criminal contempt of Congress citation to be settled in the courts. Currently, that's a federal misdemeanor, punishable with a fine up to $100,000 and a year in jail.