In unprecedented move, House votes to hold attorney general Eric Holder in contempt
Eric Holder found in contempt of Congress over Fast and Furious scandal.
By EMILY DERUY
With dozens of Democratic lawmakers walking off the floor in protest, the House voted Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress in fight over access to documents related to a botched gun-trafficking investigation.
The House voted 255-67 to hold Holder in criminal contempt, an unprecedented move considering that a sitting member of a presidential cabinet has never been held in contempt. Seventeen Democrats joined Republicans while two GOP lawmakers crossed party lines to vote with Democrats.
Led by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, many Democrats boycotted the vote of Holder, who is the first black attorney general, calling it a politically-motivated ploy.
They were joined by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) Over 100 members did not participate in the vote.
Typically, such a vote would prompt the local U.S. Attorney to move the case forward as a criminal matter. In this case, that leaves Holder’s own employee, Ronald Machen, in the position of deciding whether to put his boss in front of a grand jury, which experts doubt will happen.
The statute governing contempt of Congress findings says the U.S. Attorney has the duty to bring the matter before a grand jury. However, since prosecutors serve in the executive branch and do not take orders for the legislative branch, it remains unclear whether such action is mandatory. The Justice Department may effectively dismiss the confessional vote by refusing to prosecute Holder.
Democratic lawmakers can be seen leaving the House chamber, walking up both aisles on the floor.
The vote is a culmination of months of wrangling between congressional Republicans and the Justice Department over the bungled Operation Fast and Furious, an investigation launched by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in Arizona to trace weapons purchased by Mexican drug cartels that crossed the border.
The operation lost track of more than 1,000 guns it had been tracking, and two weapons were involved in the Dec. 2010 killing of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
House Republicans, lead by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, accused Holder and the Justice Department of concealing documents related to the gun-tracking probe titled Operation Fast and Furious, specifically how it was approved and managed.
But the White House and Holder said Thursday’s vote was purely political.
“Republicans pushed for political theater rather than legitimate congressional oversight,” said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer.
Holder also criticized the vote as political and said his department would not be distracted by it.
“Whatever the path that this matter will follow, it will not distract me for the men and women of the Justice Department,” he said. “A great deal of work for the American people remains to be done, I am getting back to it and I suggest that those who orchestrated today’s vote do the same.”
Republicans decided to move forward with the contempt vote after President Obama last week asserted executive privilege over certain documents that showed how the department reacted to questions about the Fast and Furious operation from Congress.
The White House and Justice Department met with congressional investigators and offered to turn over some of the documents in an effort to avoid the contempt vote, but House Republicans rejected the offer. Republicans on the House Oversight Committee recommended citing Holder in contempt last week.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) exerted pressure on members to vote for the contempt resolution by officially “scoring.” Many of the 17 Democrats who voted for the resolution hail from conservative-leaning districts where gun-rights advocates hold sway.
Before the vote was held, lawmakers waged a war of words on the House floor over the Fast and Furious saga and the scrutiny of Holder.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) spoke on the House floor in support of the contempt resolution, saying that “the House needs to know how this happened and it’s our constitutional duty to find out” for the sake of Terry’s family.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), a lifetime member and former board member of the NRA, motioned to throw out the contempt vote and called for a bipartisan public hearing to “get the facts.” He decried the ATF and said this was a “witch hunt” with the attorney general as its target. Dingell’s motion was voted down.
The vote came one day after Fortune magazine published a piece based on a six-month investigation that undermined claims that the ATF had a grand scheme to intentionally let guns “walk” or facilitate the transfer of firearms to Mexican cartels.
“The public case alleging that Voth and his colleagues walked guns is replete with distortions, errors, partial truths, and even some outright lies,” Fortune wrote.
(Photos: Flickr, UDSA.gov; Screenshot, C-SPAN)