The House’s disproportionate contempt vote

June 30, 2012

THE VOTE BY the House to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt was precipitous and disproportionate. In the familiar tug of war between Congress and the executive branch, such a move should be undertaken only when necessary to vindicate an important interest and when no accommodation can be reached between the legitimate needs of both branches. Those tests were not met before the House upped the ante by making Mr. Holder the first attorney general to be cited for contempt by the full House.

That move has both a symbolic sting and the practical consequence that the House can now move to enforce its subpoena in federal court and persuade a judge to override the president’s claim of executive privilege over documents relating to the gun-walking operation known as “Fast and Furious.” The law in this sensitive area is unsettled in part because courts correctly prefer the other two branches to work out their difficulties on their own. Even now, after the contempt vote, that would be the better course. The administration had expressed some willingness to allow the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee access to additional documents. It would be wise to resume those negotiations.

Our comments on the wisdom of the contempt vote are separate from our assessment of the president’s claim of executive privilege over the subpoenaed documents. The dispute centers on material developed after the Justice Department submitted a letter to Congress, since withdrawn as inaccurate, denying the existence of an operation to let guns “walk” from their points of purchase in the United States to Mexican drug cartels. Two of the 2,500 guns turned up at the scene of a U.S. Border Patrol agent’s murder. This is a legitimate subject for congressional inquiry, even if Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the oversight panel, has lurched from one conspiracy theory to another in search of a bigger, underlying scandal.

The committee is entitled to understand how it was misled and why it took so long to correct the record. Documents that implicate ongoing law enforcement investigations shouldn’t be released. But the administration, as we said earlier, is on weaker ground when it resists turning over materials related to its discussions of how to correct the faulty record. The administration claims to have expressed willingness to allow access to documents and provide additional briefings; that merited more exploration before the speedy contempt vote by the House. The dispute’s partisan taint was underscored by the National Rifle Association’s decision to “score” the vote as part of its tally of lawmakers’ Second Amendment bona fides. At this point the fight has nothing to do with gun policy.

In a 1977 case, the federal appeals court here counseled that in such cases “each branch should take cognizance of an implicit constitutional mandate to seek optimal accommodation through a realistic evaluation of the needs of the conflicting branches in the particular fact situation.” That may sound quaint — naive, even — in the poisonous context of the “Fast and Furious” probe and the general partisan atmosphere. Nonetheless, it is sound advice.

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