A House Judiciary subcommittee voted today to reject White House claims of executive privilege and immunity for former White House counsel Harriet Miers, clearing the first hurdle for the committee to pursue contempt proceedings against her for failing to appear at the hearing.
The Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative law had subpoenaed Miers to testify about the firing of nine U.S. attorneys on June 13. The White House first asserted that her testimony would be protected by executive privilege, and later ruled that she has “absolute immunity” from compelled testimony and thus should not appear at all.
But the subcommittee met anyway, and news photographers swarmed around the empty witness chair with plastic water glasses and a “Ms. Miers” placard with several staff chairs behind it also labeled with her name.
Without the star witness, subcommittee Chairwoman Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) ruled that the White House immunity and privilege claims were invalid, a claim that the subcommittee ultimately upheld on a party-line vote.
Staff members described the ruling as a necessary precursor to making a contempt charge, though Democrats have not yet decided whether to seek such a charge against Miers.
Republicans on the subcommittee — led by ranking member Chris Cannon of Utah — argued that the Democrats were steering the committee towards a court battle that they would not win, and one that would ultimately embarrass Congress and limit its congressional power.
Cannon argued that in order to defend the subpoena in court, Democrats would have to show that they were pursuing evidence critical to an investigation, and that there is no other way to get that evidence but to compel Miers’ testimony. Cannon said that since the White House has offered to make Miers available for a limited interview without a formal transcript or oath, the subpoena would not be upheld.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), echoing Cannon, said if the committee pursues a showdown with the White House over Miers’ testimony, “there will be a court case and we will be embarrassed and Congressional prerogatives will be diminished.”
Democrats rejected those views, and argued that Miers, as a private citizen, has no right to simply refuse to appear before a Congressional committee. If the White House wants to assert executive privilege, Democrats added, the president must declare the privilege, and detail what is covered, and why.
“The White House could have prevented an escalation by engaging in reasonable negotiations,” Sánchez said. “Unfortunately, Ms. Miers and the White House have chosen a path of confrontation instead of cooperation.”
The subcommittee also approved a resolution authorizing subpoenas to the Republican National Committee for e-mail messages regarding the U.S. attorneys that were sent by White House staff members using RNC accounts. The White House had previously directed the RNC not to turn over these e-mails to the committee.