The Democrats' Contempt Play

  • Share
  • Read Later
Left, Lawrence Jackson / AP; Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Former White House counsel Harriet Miers, left, and White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten

For such a serious and rare undertaking on Capitol Hill, it was an unusually subdued affair. The House Judiciary Committee Wednesday passed two measures to hold former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten in contempt for failing to answer subpoenas related to the firings of eight U.S. Attorneys last year. But the whole matter took less than two hours to complete, and passions were noticeably restrained.

Perhaps that's because both sides are convinced that very little will ever come of the charges. The resolutions will now go to the full House for consideration, where they will likely be voted upon after the August recess, according to a senior Democratic aide. The committee vote, 22-17 along party lines, was marked by Republican worries that such a move would not only take years to play out in the courts, but by concerns that the power of Congress would be weakened if and when Congress were to lose the court battle.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said the contempt citations — which if enforced carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a fine of $100,000 — were the last option open to him. Democrats for more than seven months have been looking into how much the White House knew about the firings, which critics say were done for purely political reasons. They have been attempting to interview Miers for months and to obtain documents from Bolten. Earlier this year the Administration offered to let Miers and senior advisor Karl Rove meet with the committee for a one-time, off-the-record interview, which would not be under oath and would not be transcribed. Since then, Democrats have rejected that proposal out of hand, and White House Counsel Fred Fielding has said both Miers and Bolten are immune to the committee's requests because they fall under executive privilege.

"This investigation, including the reluctant but necessary decision to move forward with contempt, has been a very deliberative process, taking care at each step to respect the executive branch's legitimate prerogatives," Conyers said. "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."

Almost every Republican thanked the chairman for his leadership of the committee while registering their complaints — many citing former President Bill Clinton's invocation of executive privilege — and offering two amendments, both of which failed along party lines. Former House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner even offered Conyers a bipartisan option: to ask the courts directly to expedite the case.

"I would support such a move to file a lawsuit in the District Court of the District of Columbia because I think it's in a bipartisan interest to see this situation resolved," Sensenbrenner told the committee. Conyers replied that he'd look into the offer, though a Democratic aide familiar with the committee underlined: "What's on the table currently is the contempt resolution that's headed to the floor for a House vote." The White House last week said if Congress passes the contempt citations it would move to stop the Justice Department from pursuing the charges, which it claims are inherently invalid; that move could keep the measures tied up for months if not years. On Tuesday, Brian Benczkowski, principal deputy assistant attorney general, sent a letter to the committee citing the department's "long-standing" position, "articulated during administrations of both parties, that the criminal contempt of Congress statute does not apply to the President or presidential subordinates who assert executive privilege."

"For our view, this is pathetic," White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters. "What you have right now is partisanship on Capitol Hill that quite often boils down to insults, insinuations, inquisitions and investigations rather than pursuing the normal business of trying to pass major pieces of legislation, such as appropriations bills, and to try to work in such a way as to demonstrate to the American people that Congress and the White House can work together." Snow said this is part of a pattern of legislative abuse of oversight that includes "more than 300 executive branch investigations or inquiries; 400 requests for documents, interviews, or testimony; we've had more than 550 officials testify; we've had more than 600 oversight hearings; 87,000-plus hours spent responding to oversight requests; and 430,000 pages made available to Congress for oversight. That's pretty significant."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, welcomed the move. "The Constitution gives the Congress a crucial role in overseeing the executive branch in order to protect the American people against overreaching, incompetence, and corruption," she said in a statement. "I am hopeful that today's vote will help the Administration see the light and release the information to which the Judiciary Committee is entitled."

Conyers, in his own nod to civility, warned three often-outspoken members of his own caucus to respect the civil tone of the hearing before they made their remarks. Indeed, nary a member on either side raised their voice and the panel had occasional moments of laughter, as when Representative Chris Cannon accidentally voted against his own amendment in a voice vote.

The vote comes a day after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. That hearing was anything but civil, with bipartisan ire focused on Gonzales, who has consistently dodged questions both about how much he knew about the firings that he signed off on and has provided seemingly inconsistent testimony regarding internal Administration disputes over the President's domestic wiretapping program.

When Senator Arlen Specter, the top Republican on the panel, asked Gonzales whether the President has the right to prohibit the Department of Justice from pursuing Congressional charges of contempt, Gonzales had a short lawyerly response. "I am recused of speaking on that matter due to the ongoing investigation," he said.