WASHINGTON -- House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is threatening a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, but when Democrats tried a similar move in the Bush administration, he called it politics and boycotted.
Issa feels he has not gotten all the documents and information he has demanded in subpoenas to the Justice Department seeking information on the ill-fated Fast and Furious gun-running sting. In the operation, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents allowed suspects to "walk" with numerous guns in hopes of grabbing the higer-ups in criminal syndicates.
But the weapons wound up in the possession of Mexican drug cartels, and some were linked to the killing of border agent Brian Terry. Issa is trying to find out how high the blame lies in the Obama administration, and whether crimes were committed. Holder has testified seven times on Capitol Hill and the Justice Department has handed over thousands of pages of documents. But in a long memo released Thursday that lays out the case for contempt, Issa argues federal officials have stonewalled key requests that they have no right to block.
The Department of Justice has argued that it is releasing material as quickly as it can, so as not to endanger criminal investigations.
Apparently Issa has had enough, and his spokesman, Frederick Hill, argued that the DOJ's position was untenable after officials, including Holder, have had to retract and revise various denials involving Fast and Furious.
"To allow an agency that has already been caught making false statement to assert carte blanche authority to decide which documents they release is allowing them to be their own judge and jury," Hill said.
But is was a different matter in 2008, when Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee were trying to find out if the administration of President George W. Bush fired seven U.S. Attorneys for political reasons. (An inspector general later determined that they had.)
In the course of the investigation, Congress subpoenaed former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and then-chief of staff Joshua Bolten. They refused to comply, asserting executive privilege, and the House voted to hold them in contempt. Although there was strong evidence the U.S. Attorneys' dismissals were bogus, Republicans cried foul, accused Democrats of playing politics and stormed out of the House in a boycott of the vote.
Issa was the first one off the floor after then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). (Watch the video above.)
Hill said the comparison of the cases was "poor," and argued that they are different because the Bush administration was asserting executive privilege, while the Justice Department under President Obama is only saying it is trying to safeguard investigations.
"They are not willing to let Congress look at their management and operations, and that is preventing what congressional oversight is supposed to do," Hill said.
He also noted that Democrats could be equally accused of hypocrisy if they thought administration obstruction warranted a contempt vote in 2008 but not in the current case, where at least one official has pleaded his right to not incriminate himself.
Although Hill argued that the cases are entirely different, Issa's memo does cite the Miers and Bolten contempt vote as a precedent for his.
The top Democrat on the Oversight Committee was not buying Issa's argument.
"Holding someone in contempt is one of the most serious actions Congress can take, but it is being used in this case as part of a partisan election year witch-hunt," Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said in a statement. "Unsurprisingly, these draft contempt documents were leaked to the press and Republican House leaders before Committee Members ever saw them, and are based on an investigation characterized by repeated claims that turned out to be false. Rather than straining to generate press for political purposes, our Committee should engage in legitimate reform efforts to help law enforcement agents combat drug cartels and gun traffickers on both sides of the border."
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.