When is Congressional oversight a “witch hunt”?
This week, as House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) circulated a draft resolution that would hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to produce documents related to a botched gun-smuggling investigation, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the panel’s ranking member, unloaded on the move.
“Holding someone in contempt is one of the most serious actions Congress can take, but it is being used in this case as part of a partisan, election-year witch hunt,” Cummings said.
But in 2008, the two were on the other side of a contempt vote.
Then, Democrats voted to hold two White House aides in contempt of Congress as President George W. Bush asserted executive privilege and denied demands for them to testify.
Then-Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) led a Republican protest by walking off the House floor during the vote, and Issa called the investigation at issue, regarding the controversial firing of seven U.S. attorneys, a “witch hunt.”
The circumstances of the two investigations were different. For instance, in 2008, the White House argued the president’s advisers should be free to provide advice without the threat of a subpoena. In the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking investigation, the Justice Department argues that it is complying with the subpoenas and has provided more than 7,000 pages of documents.
Still, the draft contempt resolution that Issa is circulating marks the most pointed conflict between House Republicans and the Obama administration since the GOP took control of the House in January 2011 and obtained the power of the Congressional subpoena.
It also comes on the heels of scandals at the General Services Administration and within the Secret Service, which have put government waste and misconduct in news headlines.
On March 29, Boehner highlighted a specific investigation for the first time, raising the profile of an inquiry led by Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton into a renewable loan guarantee program.
Republicans describe Boehner as having been cautious so far on oversight matters, not wanting to make politics “personal.” But that made the move more significant.
Freshman Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, which has jurisdiction over the GSA, wants to leverage recent scandal headlines in his quest to do away with the GSA outright.
Denham recently told Roll Call that House Republicans are planning a series of bills that will focus on the colorful expenses that ran up the cost of the lavish Las Vegas conference hosted by the GSA.
Along with the draft contempt resolution, Issa released a memo explaining his investigation and arguing the House should hold Holder in contempt.
In the “Fast and Furious” scandal, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are accused of allowing assault rifles and other high-powered weapons to “walk,” which meant ending surveillance on weapons suspected to be en route to Mexican drug cartels. The operation involved undercover sales of weapons as a way to track illegal gun running, but the ATF has been roundly criticized for having inadequate protocols for tracking the guns after they were sold.