House finds Bolten, Miers in contempt of Congress
The House voted Thursday to hold White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before a panel investigating the firing of several United States attorneys.
Ahead of the vote, Republicans had walked out in an effort to show that they want to work on a permanent update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) rather than be part of a “partisan fishing expedition,” as House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) put it.
The contempt vote raises the stakes between the White House and Congress in the battle over the fired U.S. attorneys and could set up a constitutional showdown between the legislative and executive branches.
The matter will now be referred to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
If the fight comes to a head without a compromise having been reached, it could pit Congress’s power to hold White officials in contempt against the president’s right to assert executive privilege.
Democrats passed two resolutions through the adoption of a single rule, a procedural tactic that limited the time of debate, angering Republicans. One resolution holds Bolten and Miers in contempt. The second sets the stage for a civil suit the House would file against the administration to compel it to force Bolten and Miers to testify.
“I hope this administration will realize this Congress is serious about its constitutional role of oversight,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Pelosi, who stated that she “had hoped that this day would never have come,” added that, if White House officials instruct Department of Justice attorneys not to prosecute the contempt citations, “we will have power to go to federal court and seek civil enforcement of our subpoenas.”
Republicans argued that Congress should not seek a showdown with the White House on the issue, claiming that losing the case would hurt the legislative branch in the long run.
Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) said the case “creates the potential to undermine the power of the first branch of government.”
Members of both parties drew up nightmare scenarios, with Dreier indicating that losing a court case on the issue would make Congress a lesser branch, while Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) said not acting now would embolden future presidents to exert executive privilege more often.
The House acted Thursday after months of negotiations between Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and White House officials, and Pelosi blasted the Bush administration for stonewalling.
The White House offered to allow House investigators to question Bolten and Miers privately under strict conditions. Investigators would not have been allowed to make a transcript of the examination or copy documents. The House also would have had to agree not to seek further information, said Democrats.
Democratic leaders rejected the conditions out of hand, arguing that no lawyer would agree to such constraints.
“This is beyond arrogance,” said Pelosi. “It’s hubris taken to the ultimate degree.”
Conyers said he had already discovered “plenty of evidence of wrongdoing at the Department of Justice. He said officials made the decision to fire attorneys on the basis of whether they had pursued public corruption charges against Democratic government officials. He also said that Justice officials made misleading statements to investigators minimizing the apparent involvement of White House personnel in the firings.
Republicans blasted the move and its timing, with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, calling the contempt measure an act of extreme partisanship.
Many GOP lawmakers also accused the Democratic leadership of wasting time on the contempt charges instead of passing the FISA update.
“On the eve of the expiration of critical intelligence legislation, the House Democratic Majority has chosen to put extreme partisanship ahead of our country’s safety,” Smith said. “Apparently, the Democratic majority cares more about the alleged steroid use of a few baseball players and the personnel decisions of the White House than they do about promoting national security.”