The House Judiciary Committee said Monday that it would move forward with contempt-of-Congress proceedings against President Bush’s chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, and former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers for refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas pertaining to the probe of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said his committee would vote Wednesday on a resolution to hold Bolten and Miers in contempt for refusing to turn over documents and testimony the panel sought in the politically charged case.
The decision ratchets up a battle between Congress and the White House in which the Bush administration has asserted executive privilege in refusing to release information about the firings. The contempt resolution would go to the House floor for a vote if, as expected, the committee approves it.
Only twice since the Watergate investigations of the mid-1970s has the full House voted to hold an administration official in contempt of Congress. In 1982, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch Burford, under orders from President Reagan, refused to turn over documents. The Justice Department refused to prosecute her. A year later another EPA official, Rita Lavelle, refused to appear before a House committee. Lavelle was acquitted of the contempt charge but was later convicted of perjury in another trial.
Conyers said that the investigation -- “including the reluctant but necessary decision to move forward with contempt” -- had been “a very deliberative process, taking care at each step to respect the executive branch’s legitimate prerogatives.”
“I’ve allowed the White House and Ms. Miers every opportunity to cooperate with this investigation, either voluntarily or under subpoena. It is still my hope that they will reconsider this hard-line position, and cooperate with our investigation so that we can get to the bottom of this matter,” he said.
Democrats have seized on the dismissals of the U.S. attorneys, all appointed by Bush, because of evidence that some may have been removed because they were not pursuing cases that would further Republican Party goals.
Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales is to appear today before the Senate Judiciary Committee for questioning about his role in the dismissals.
Gonzales has been criticized for giving what lawmakers consider conflicting explanations about the depth of his involvement in the firings. He is also facing questions about a conversation he had with former top aide Monica M. Goodling, who said he attempted to discuss the firings with her before she was questioned by congressional investigators.
In his prepared testimony for the hearing, distributed Monday by the Justice Department, Gonzales, whose tenure once seemed imperiled by the controversy, says he remains troubled by the allegations of politicization at the department.
But he vows to stay at the department to “fix the problems.”
Congressional investigators have reviewed thousands of pages of Justice Department documents and testimony, but the probe has hit a wall at the White House, which has declined to make officials available for public questioning under oath.
The administration has offered to make some officials available for private questioning without a transcript, oath or opportunity for follow-up questions. Lawmakers have called those conditions unacceptable.
“It seems now that we have a fishing expedition that’s woefully short on fish,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said Monday. “This is one of these things where Congress can get its facts and do its due diligence without having to get to this point, and we continue to hold open the possibility of accommodation.”
Contempt of Congress is a misdemeanor under federal law; cases are referred to the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia for prosecution. The penalty is one to 12 months in jail and $100 to $1,000 in fines.
Snow reiterated Monday that the administration would probably try to block any effort to prosecute Miers or Bolten. The White House has cited Justice Department legal opinions that contend the law does not allow for criminal proceedings against administration officials who assert executive privilege in refusing to answer lawmakers’ questions
“Certainly the tradition, when it comes to dealing with ... such matters, has been one in which, for separation-of-powers reasons, the Justice Department has in fact been reluctant to do such things,” Snow said, adding that any final decision would be made by the Justice Department.
“I do not want to vouchsafe for what may come out of Justice, but certainly there’s a long series of traditions,” Snow said.
It is not clear when a contempt resolution would reach the House floor, assuming the judiciary committee passes it Wednesday. With Congress going on summer vacation after next week, some observers said the vote might not happen until after Labor Day.
Miers became White House counsel in February 2005, when plans for replacing some of the U.S. attorneys were first being formulated.
One attorney was told in the middle of last year that he was being replaced. Seven lost their jobs on the same day in December. Miers resigned a month later.
Miers, who was called to testify July 12 before the House Judiciary Committee, had alerted the committee that she was invoking executive privilege and would not answer questions. Ultimately, she chose not to attend the hearing, citing orders from Bush.
Bolten received a subpoena for White House documents pertaining to the probe. White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding told lawmakers June 28 that the White House considered the documents protected by executive privilege and that officials would not provide them.