WASHINGTON-Ignoring President Barack Obama's assertion of executive privilege, a House committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over documents related to a botched gunrunning operation that led to the death of a federal agent.
The day's events began with Obama's first use of executive privilege to withhold the documents the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is seeking and ended with that's committee's late afternoon party-line 23 to 17 vote to hold Holder in contempt. The two moves promise to ratchet up the ongoing showdown between Congress and the White House over the program dubbed "Operation Fast and Furious."
This Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives operation distributed more than 2,000 guns to a Mexican drug-trafficking network. Agents used taxpayer funds to purchase the semi-automatic weapons and then sold them to at least one cartel. The guns later turned up at numerous violent crime scenes in both Mexico and the United States, including one attack that killed Brian Terry, a U.S. border agent. Congress and the Department of Justice have been battling for more than a year over the release of some documents related to the operation.
The White House tried to preempt the committee's scheduled Wednesday contempt vote by invoking executive privilege over the desired documents. This privilege has been used by administrations to protect from congressional scrutiny certain discussions between a president and his advisors.
President Bill Clinton exerted executive privilege 14 times, while George W. Bush used it six times. Although this is Obama's first use of the privilege, he, in March 2007, when he was a U.S. senator, criticized Bush for using executive privilege after Congress asked for documents related to the firing of nine U.S. attorneys.
Obama said then that there was "a tendency on the part of this administration to try to hide behind executive privilege every time there's something a little shaky that's taking place."
Sen. Obama added, "I think the administration would be best served by coming clean on this. I think the American people deserve to know what was going on there."
But in the current Fast and Furious case, Obama administration officials on Wednesday argued that the release of the documents would have "significant, damaging consequences" and "inhibit the candor" of future deliberations within the executive branch.
Republican lawmakers took the executive privilege announcement as an opportunity to tie the Obama White House more directly to the Fast and Furious operation. Traditionally, Republicans argued, executive privilege is invoked when a president is engaged in the deliberation and discussions connected to the protected documents.
"Until now, everyone believed that the decisions regarding Fast and Furious were confined to the Department of Justice," House Speaker John Boehner's spokesman Brendan Buck said in a statement released to reporters. "The White House decision to invoke executive privilege implies that White House officials were either involved in the Fast and Furious operation or the cover-up that followed. The administration has always insisted that wasn't the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?"
In a March 2011 interview, Obama said he wasn't informed about the operation and denied authorizing it.
Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, moved forward with Wednesday's contempt hearing, arguing that the executive privilege announcement "falls short of any reason to delay today's proceedings."
Issa and Holder met briefly Tuesday on Capitol Hill and failed to reach an agreement. The Justice Department on Tuesday also released to Congress one additional page related to Fast and Furious, but it was not a part of the documents Congress is seeking.
"If the Justice Department had delivered the documents they freely admitted they could have delivered, we wouldn't be here today," Issa said at the start of Wednesday's contempt hearing. "It is the duty of the executive branch and its agencies to represent itself honestly before Congress and to make available such transparency as is necessary for us to fund and authorize in the future the requests of this and future presidents."
That kick-started a contentious hearing that stretched into the late afternoon. Democrats accused Republicans of conducing a political "witch hunt" and of resorting to "partisan and inflammatory personal attacks" on Holder. Republicans accused the administration of trying to stonewall the investigation.
"We have not gotten to the bottom of this, and Brain Terry was killed in December of 2010," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. "We have a duty … a moral obligation to get to the bottom of this. It is not about Eric Holder. It is about the Department of Justice and justice in the United States of America."
The contempt citation now goes to the full House for consideration. Boehner released a statement after the committee vote saying that he planned to proceed with a House vote next week unless Holder hands over the requested documents.
Congress has held administration officials in contempt about a dozen times during the last 40 years. A Democrat-controlled Congress in 2008, also a presidential election year, held in contempt George W. Bush's White House counsel, Harriet Miers, and chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, over claims of politically motivated hiring practices. Holder is the first attorney general to face a contempt vote since 1998.
Holder released his own statement calling the contempt vote "an election-year tactic" that "has deflected critical resources from fulfilling what remains my top priority at the Department of Justice: protecting the American people."
The contempt battle could make its way to the courts. But both the lawmakers and the White House may be reluctant to allow the clash to reach that far out of fear that the judicial branch may curtail either presidential or legislative powers.
In the midst of all the political wrangling, the parents of Brian Terry, Josephine and Kent Terry, released a statement of their own: "Our son lost his life protecting this nation, and it is very disappointing that we are now faced with an administration that seems more concerned with protecting themselves rather than revealing the truth behind Operation Fast and Furious."