As the dust settles on the U.S. House of Representatives' vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress (which followed the White House invoking executive privilege to prevent the release of documents), I've watched the events unfold from the sidelines in pain.
Whenever you recognize someone for their service or achievement, there's always the chance that award recipients will turn around and disappoint even some of their most fervent fans. In 2010 and 2011, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) ran this risk when we chose to publicly recognize both House Government Affairs and Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and President Barack Obama for promoting open government, oversight and accountability.
Sadly, nothing in the sorry episode advances the causes that Issa and Obama championed. Having given awards to both men for their commitment to good government and open government respectively, I feel compelled to say something.
Being vigorous advocates for congressional oversight, POGO was initially encouraged by Sen. Charles Grassley's and Chairman Issa's cross-cameral investigation of the ATF's disastrous "Fast and Furious" program. This was the kind of meaty work POGO teaches Congressional staff to undertake in our monthly, bipartisan Congressional Oversight Training Sessions. The ATF gun-running scheme, which contributed to the death of at least one U.S. agent and placed weapons in the hands of organized criminals in Mexico, exposed both government wrongdoing and incompetence. Whether Holder obstructed the congressional investigation is certainly an appropriate inquiry.
But here is where it all began to go wrong. An important investigation into misconduct and deceit by a federal agency appears to have become a partisan game of gotcha to trap the biggest catch.
Oversight heavyweight Rep. John Dingell -- himself a loyal Democratic partisan -- cried foul in a "Dear Colleague" letter to the House last month. He wrote, "We should be appalled that the congressional investigation is not examining what is truly at issue here, the deceitful actions of ATF -- an agency that has a history of improper behavior -- and instead focusing on getting the Attorney General."
Certainly, if the Attorney General has done something wrong, it deserves a congressional inquiry. On the other hand, if there is no solid ground for the contempt inquiry, then the committee is making a mockery of congressional oversight.
This crucial point is one of the prime lessons we teach in our training sessions. Partisanship torpedoes the credibility of even legitimate investigations in the eyes of all but the similarly partisan. Back when he was in the minority, Issa demonstrated a seriousness in his investigations, such as his review of the Bush administration's notorious Minerals Management Service. But once he became chairman under a Democratic president, Issa made no effort to quell his inner partisan beast. For example, reversing longstanding practice, Democrats on his committee were no longer allowed their own witnesses at hearings if administration officials were testifying.
To make matters worse, the administration matched this disappointing behavior with its own. Exerting executive privilege to withhold agency documents from Congress? We have long believed there is very little information that should not be available to the Congress, and we have not heard any arguments from the administration that meet the limited reasons to keep information secret from Congress.
I turned to two experts on Congressional oversight and balance of power, and asked them what is going on. Both were figuratively shaking their heads in their email responses. Mort Rosenberg, who worked for the Congressional Research Service as an expert in congressional oversight, wrote, "I was attempting to explain to some people what Issa's imminent contempt proceeding was all about, that it was hardly unprecedented, and that it could never be the subject of a legitimate claim of presidential privilege."
Lou Fischer, a constitutional law expert and former staffer at the Congressional Research Service, concurred: "If there is any merit to Holder's position that Congress is entitled to documents as part of the legislative process but not for 'oversight,' then why did he give over 7,000 documents to House Oversight?"
In the end, I am left with the sinking realization that two of Washington's premiere advocates for open government are trampling these principles in a partisan election-year battle. There are no winners here. We all lose.
Danielle Brian is the executive director of the Project On Government Oversight. Cross-posted from POGO's Blog.
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