WASHINGTON — The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has voted to pursue a contempt of Congress charge against Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. over his refusal to turn over documents related to the committee’s investigation of the Fast and Furious operation. Here is a look at the issues:
What is Fast and Furious?
It was a flawed operation run by the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The ATF allowed illegal purchases of about 2,500 guns and then lost track of most of them while trying to trace them to Mexican drug cartel leaders. Two of the firearms were found at the scene where Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry died in a firefight.
What is the committee investigating?
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), the committee chairman, said the panel had “uncovered serious wrongdoing by the Justice Department.” He called into question the ATF’s ability “to carry out its statutory mission and the ability of the Department of Justice to adequately supervise it.”
Issa drafted the contempt resolution after Holder declined to turn over all of the 1,300 documents that the committee subpoenaed. Issa said the information was needed to consider legislative remedies to restructure the ATF. Critics contend that the GOP-led investigation is politically motivated.
How does President Obama’s use of his executive privilege affect the issue?
Presidents from both parties have asserted executive privilege in the past and have refused to provide information to Congress, reasoning that doing so could hurt the president’s ability to obtain candid advice from aides.
“The president, no less than members of Congress and federal judges, needs the protection of a principle that shields his close advisors from open-ended inquiry by another branch of government,” Fred F. Fielding, President George W. Bush’s counsel, wrote in 2007 to lawmakers investigating the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
What is the penalty for contempt of Congress?
It is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $100,000 fine and one year in jail.
What happens now?
The full House must approve the contempt charge. If approved, the matter probably will go to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who would decide whether to prosecute. But in the past, the Justice Department — under Democratic and Republican presidents — has taken the position that it will not allow a U.S. attorney to pursue charges if the department has determined that executive privilege was well-founded.
Lawmakers could attempt to pressure the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate whether to bring charges.
If the Justice Department declines to pursue contempt charges, the House could file suit, sending the matter to the courts.
The House Republican leaders have called for a vote next week, but Congress watchers wonder whether they will try to work out an agreement with Holder rather than take up the contempt charge at a time when the economy is uppermost on voters’ minds and amid public displeasure with Washington’s hyper-partisanship.
What are a few examples of what has happened in the past during struggles involving executive privilege?
In 1982, the House voted to hold in contempt Anne M. Gorsuch Buford, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, for refusing to produce documents concerning enforcement of laws on hazardous waste cleanup. President Reagan had ordered her not to produce the documents. The Justice Department declined to prosecute, saying that Congress was overstepping its bounds.
In 2008, the House voted to file suit after the George W. Bush Justice Department refused to bring contempt charges against White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers.
The privilege is perhaps best known as the legal claim that President Nixon invoked, ultimately unsuccessfully, to block release of the Watergate tapes that drove him from office.