House holds attorney general in contempt; Clay, Carnahan, others walk out
WASHINGTON – For the first time in the nation’s history, the U.S. House voted Thursday to hold a sitting attorney general – the highest law enforcement officer – in contempt of Congress.
The 255-67 vote by the Republican-controlled House spurred a walkout by more than 100 Democrats, including U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay and Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, and party leaders who denounced the contempt vote against Attorney Gen. Eric H. Holder as political theater and engaged in some theater of their own.
“Those [Republicans] claim to be concerned about powerful assault weapons crossing the border into Mexico illegally,” Clay said. “But how they can be completely fine with those same powerful assault weapons being sold right here in this country legally, putting our communities at even greater risk?”
Clay is a member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which had voted along party lines last week to cite Holder for contempt for failing to produce key documents the panel subpoenaed in its investigation into the botched “Fast and Furious” operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The panel’s chairman, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., blamed Holder’s Justice Department for the flawed “gun-walking” sting operation, which involved efforts to sell thousands of guns to arms dealers at the U.S.-Mexico border and then trace them to drug lords.
Many of the guns later showed up at crime scenes, including one from the killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, which was often invoked during the House debate by Issa and other Republicans. Investigators are seeking documents to find out whether high-level Justice officials knew about the operation’s problems before it was shut down.
The contempt resolution was supported by 237 Republicans and 17 Democrats, with 2 Republicans and 65 Democrats voting no. Another 108 Democrats, most of whom walked out in protest, did not vote. Among those refusing to vote, in addition to Clay and Carnahan, was Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, voted no. All of the GOP House members from Missouri, as well as Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, voted yes.
After the vote, Holder denounced Issa’s committee for conducting a “misguided and politically motivated investigation” in an election year. He said the House GOP had chosen to “focus on politics over public safety.”
The full House had never before held an attorney general in contempt, although a committee cited former AG Janet Reno in 1998 over documents related to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Among the high-ranking federal officials cited for contempt of Congress was Anne Gorsuch, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
Thursday’s contempt vote followed an often acerbic debate between House Republicans and Democrats. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the contempt citation was needed because “no Justice Department is above the law.” He added: “The White House has chosen to invoke executive privilege; that leaves us no options.”
In a statement, Carnahan said he walked out because "the charges in the contempt citation were baseless, and were clearly meant to fulfill the goal of the Republican Party of attacking the Obama administration at every turn. Now, rather than continuing to focus on valuable work the Justice Department is pursuing, protecting American voters from intimidation and suppression, Attorney General Holder will be forced to defend himself against charges that are not credible, have no factual basis and no justifiable reason for being elevated to this level.”
But a White House spokesman accused the House GOP of staging “political theater rather than legitimate congressional oversight.” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., accused the Republicans of untruths and the Democratic Whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called the vote “irresponsible.”
Among the GOP lawmakers voting for the contempt resolution were U.S. Reps. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood – who has called on Holder to resign and accused the Obama administration of “a cover up” – and Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth.
“It is a disgrace that the chief law enforcement of the United States refuses to release documentation that I believe would shed light on potential wrongdoing by members of the administration and the tragic death of a Border Patrol agent,” said Luetkemeyer.
After the White House claimed executive privilege on some of the subpoenaed documents last week, Issa rejected efforts to delay a vote on the contempt citation. But the panel’s ranking Democrat, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., argued that Holder had acted in “good faith” to try to negotiate with the committee on which documents to hand over.
This week, the Associated Press reported that two emails written by Holder, as well as one written by Deputy Attorney General James Cole in 2011, seemed to indicate that they had not known directly about the “gun-walking” operation but wanted to find out if some of the allegations about it were correct. “We need answers on this," Holder wrote in one email. “Not defensive BS. Real answers.”