In a debate and vote that was emotional, rhetorically explosive, and bitterly divisive – even by congressional standards – the House of Representatives voted Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over the Fast and Furious gun-walking debacle. The House held Mr. Holder in contempt on two separate votes of 255 to 67 on criminal charges and 258 to 95 on civil charges.
Seventeen Democrats joined all but two House Republicans on the first vote, while 21 Democrats joined a united Republican front for the second. The National Rifle Association’s announcement that it will score the vote on on its annual ratings of members of Congress pressured Democrats from conservative-leaning districts to favor the measure.
Several dozen Democratic members led by the Congressional Black Caucus but including the party leaders like minority leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi and House whip Steny Hoyer walked out of the House chamber in protest, holding a press conference on the House lawn where they derided the vote as a “ridiculous partisan stunt.” More than 100 Democrats did not vote on the first measure, while 70 were absent for the second.
The votes were the first time in the nation’s history that a sitting Cabinet member had been held in contempt by either house of the US Congress. Only once before has Congress even used its other significant power of disdain, impeachment proceedings, against a sitting Cabinet official. That was in 1870 against William Belknap, President Ulysses Grant’s Secretary of War, according to Senate Historian Donald Ritchie.
So what’s the outcome of a pair of historic votes in the House today?
In all likelihood, nothing.
When the House’s measure is referred to the Justice Department, the institution could use what’s known as prosecutorial discretion to avoid taking up the issue. That’s what the Justice Department decided under President Bush when House Democrats moved criminal contempt charges against two members of the White House staff who refused to testify before Congress in 2008.
The House could then file a civil contempt suit in federal court, asking a judge to compel Holder to deliver the documents in question. If the 2008 saga is any barometer, a legal fight in the courts will likely take years.
The day’s vote capped a contentious, year-long showdown between congressional Republicans, led by House Government Oversight Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California and Holder, who has appeared before Congress nine times and delivered thousands of pages of documents relating to Fast and Furious, an operation that began in 2009 when federal agents allowed guns to “walk” into Mexico in order to trace where they ended up and that came to a head when guns from the scheme were linked to the death of an American border agent.
Holder was being held in contempt for failing to provide documents to the House Oversight panel, after President Obama claimed executive privilege to shield the documents, which stem from a period after Fast and Furious was shut down.
Republicans claim that the documents could show a Justice Department coverup. Democrats say that the conduct of the House Oversight Committee, especially the shift to the period after the operation was complete, show that the entire investigation is a political witch hunt.
As ever with Fast and Furious, the day’s debate was enveloped in a rush of charged discussion on Thursday.
“We have a dead United States Agent. We have 200 dead people in Mexico. We have more than 2,000 weapons that were knowingly, willfully given to the drug cartels, more than 1,000 of those weapons are still missing,” boomed Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah on the House floor. “We have a duly issued subpoena has not been responded to. This is not about Eric Holder, this is about the Department of Justice and justice in the United States of America.”
Democrats were equally sharp in their critique of the other side.
“To say that this is a terrible use of Congress's power and time is an understatement,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of Colorado at a press conference Wednesday. “I'm disgusted and disappointed, as a member of Congress and a former federal prosecutor, that what began as a legitimate investigation into flawed gun-trafficking operations under two administrations has now morphed into a partisan hunt for the scalp of a senior administration official.”
Mr. Hoyer, the Democratic whip, pointed out that Congress’s historical average time between a committee vote on contempt and a vote being held on the House floor was 87 days.
That gives “time to reflect on an extraordinarily important action with consequences beyond the knowledge of anybody sitting here today,” Hoyer argued on the floor. “Now, I want to tell the Chairman with all due respect that I think this investigation has been all too superficial.”
Less than two weeks have elapsed since the Government Oversight committee voted to hold Holder in contempt.
Republicans argued that no matter the timing, Mr. Obama’s call for executive privilege – his first – was not justified and deserved a contempt vote.
“This is a question of whether a Congressional subpoena means anything or whether it can be ignored by the highest legal official in the land,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) of South Carolina, in a statement. “If Congress allows the Attorney General to ignore our oversight ability, then one of the most important checks on unbridled executive power is taken from the legislative branch.”
The issue touched a deeply personal chord for both parties.
“My message to my colleagues and others who have fought for answers: We are still fighting for the truth and accountability – for the family of murdered Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, for whistleblowers who have faced retaliation, and for countless victims of Operation Fast and Furious in Mexico,” said Mr. Issa, who appeared in front of an image of Mr. Terry during his closing remarks on the House floor.
Issa’s main antagonist during the Fast and Furious drama, the ranking member of the House Oversight committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland, recently lost his nephew to gun violence at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Mr. Cummings represents Baltimore City, among other areas in Eastern Maryland, where “firearms and death is something I deal with on an almost daily basis,” he said earlier this week.
But deep personal connections did not bridge the deep divide of Thursday’s floor action.
“If we do this,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D) of Florida during a Rules Committee hearing on the contempt vote Wednesday, “history will judge us harshly.”
The question, of course, is which side would face harsher judgment.