Correction to This Article
Dana Milbank's Washington Sketch column in the July 26 A-section misstated the first name of House Judiciary Committee member Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.).
Contempt Contretemps

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 26, 2007

There's a reason why being in contempt of Congress is classified as a misdemeanor.

Rep. Chris Cannon, a Utah Republican, was in a fighting mood yesterday as the House Judiciary Committee voted to issue contempt citations to two White House officials.

"No!" Cannon shouted instinctively when the chairman called for a voice vote. He then realized with some chagrin that the amendment he had just shouted down was his own.

It was indicative of the level of thought that went into the contempt proceedings yesterday.

At one point, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) voiced his objections to the hearing with an alliterative binge. "It's about partisan, pointless, petty political polluting of the process," said he, "and I hope we won't continue to pursue that."

Perfectly propounded, o purveyor of poppycock. Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) predicted, with some justification, that Gohmert's words "will be most remembered in history about this debate."

Alternatively, history may choose to focus on the words of Conyers himself, who suspected foul play when Rep. Loretta Sanchez (Calif.), the Democrats' point woman on the contempt matter, discovered that her microphone wasn't working. "We'll have to have that investigated to see if it's pure accident," Conyers proposed to Sanchez, who, resplendent in a black outfit with silver sparkles, shifted to her neighbor's microphone.

At some point during these august proceedings, it was noticed that one of the oil portraits of former Judiciary chairmen, jostled by Democratic staff members, had begun to list. "Today's proceedings seem to be somewhat askew, so much so that they even knocked askew the portrait of Hatton Sumners," reported Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.).

The White House, by refusing to allow Chief of Staff Josh Bolten or former counsel Harriet Miers to testify about the U.S. attorneys scandal even in private, left Republicans with little ammunition with which to defend the president. Instead, they opted to attack his predecessor.

"President Clinton claimed executive privilege 14 times, in some instances helping his wife, Hillary Clinton," reported Rep. Lamar Smith (Tex.), the ranking Republican. "President Clinton invoked executive privilege primarily to shield his own personal misdeeds and to shield his wife."

Smith continued the familiar liturgy, ending with: "The majority knows that it would leap to the barricades of executive privilege if a Democrat were in the White House, just as it did when the Clintons were there, bobbing and weaving in Whitewater, around Paula Jones and away from Monica Lewinsky, trying to sweep it all under the rug."

Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) joined in. "President Clinton has raised executive privilege five times more than President Bush," he said, neglecting to mention that the Clinton administration and Democratic Party received more than 1,000 subpoenas, compared with a couple of dozen sent to the Bush administration and Republican Party.

Clinton, retorted Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), "had six years of a hostile Congress."

Gohmert felt it necessary to argue that Clinton replaced 139 U.S. attorneys, "compared to the 53 by Bush."

"Eighty-three of those of President Clinton [were] when he transitioned as the new president," countered Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.), who also defended Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, whom she identified as "Marvin."

Inevitably, the discussion brought in other presidential comparisons. Smith mentioned John Kennedy and George Washington. Lungren contributed Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Sanchez mentioned Richard Nixon. Jackson-Lee invoked Louis XIV.

There were fleeting moments of reason. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) proposed an alternative to a constitutional crisis and a drawn-out court battle: file a lawsuit challenging Bush's executive-privilege claim. "I think there is a bipartisan interest involved in doing this," he said.

But that compromise went nowhere -- because, as Sensenbrenner told the Democrats, "you folks have got the votes to do whatever you want."

One thing both sides wanted was to discuss the looming court battle as if it were a prizefight.

"I think that the White House is going to win," said Sensenbrenner.

"We very well may lose our argument in court," said Lungren.

"If we countenance a process where our subpoenas can be readily ignored," argued Conyers, "then we've already lost."

"We have been losing," concurred Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.).

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) postulated that ordinary Americans don't much care "whether we're winning and we're losing against the executive. They're not concerned with whether Republicans and Democrats are winning and losing with each other."

He had a point. In fact, if most Americans were to express their true feelings about Congress, they'd be guilty of a misdemeanor.

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