Congress is on track to find Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt. Given how contemptuous most Americans are of Congress -- only 17 percent approve, an all-time low -- this week's mostly party line vote will be the political equivalent of the congressional pot calling the attorney general kettle, well, black.
Here's what's really going on.
The dispute between the House Oversight Committee and the Department of Justice, coming to an absurd boil, has an inverse relationship between ferocity and substance.
At first, Republicans demanded every document on the misguided Fast and Furious "gun walking" investigation. Nine months later, they abandoned that tactic and requested only correspondence about how the Justice Department first reacted to congressional oversight. The Department accommodated more and more of their requests. That is, the parties were seemingly on the verge of striking a deal.
Then it exploded. Why? Politics, of course.
As Republicans narrowed their requests for information from the Department, they moved farther away from their role of reforming policies that led to failed plan and closer to a more political question of whether the Department was massaging or manipulating facts.
Just read the committee transcripts. There was little discussion about how the Department should be protecting the border from gun and drug violence, how the law should be enforced or how prosecutions and agents ought to conduct themselves. If they did, they would be fulfilling their oversight role and improving national policy.
Instead, they raised the ante on what certain key officials at the Department of Justice and the White House may have said to each other about how to talk to Congress about what were already acknowledged as mistakes.
A legitimate and far-reaching inquiry into how best to protect the American people devolved into the kind of crass political theater that the American people despise.
There are four reasons this fight became so aggressive and acrimonious:
- First, Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa announced his intention to move to contempt at The National Rifle Association's annual convention, To the already locked down and secured audience, Issa declared that the Obama Justice Department views the tragic death of a border agent as an excuse for more gun laws.
- Second, returning the favor, the NRA announced that it intended to "score" the contempt vote in Issa's committee, signaling they would put their muscle - votes and money -- behind this attack on the the Department. The defenders of the Department's position on documents -- lawyers, constitutional scholars, a smattering of interest groups -- are a political cricket next to the NRA's gorilla.
- Third, every hour of every day that Attorney General Holder is preparing fastidiously for nine hearings on the Hill at which Fast and Furious is in play, he is not out in the country talking about protecting the United States and about achievements on behalf of the American people. This is the most devious and insidious misuse of oversight authority and the right wing -- from their own viewpoint -- are kicking ass in this respect.
- Fourth, this coordinated attack is really about the priorities of Attorney General Holder and President Obama. The conservatives on the Committee are furious that Holder has not rolled over as access to voting is restricted across the country, which has a devastating and disproportionate effect on minority voters. They are furious at his lawsuits against Arizona and other states with newly draconian anti-immigrant laws. They are furious that he sued Sheriff Arpaio, that his Civil Rights Division aggressively prosecutes hate crimes and policy brutality, that the Environmental and Natural Resources Division is alive again and that the Anti-Trust Division says 'no' to some business mergers and deals.
Simply put, the right wing has been at Holder's throat from the very beginning, which is odd, given that Holder is the most qualified person in decades to be attorney general, having been an attorney at DOJ, a judge, U.S. attorney, and deputy attorney general. No one has ever had more experience with and devotion to the Department of Justice than Eric Holder.
Unfortunately, because of a political mismatch, this battle's messaging is lopsided. Conservatives wrap themselves in the honor of a tragically slain border agent and the completely fabricated but nonetheless compelling stench of "cover-up," while the administration finds itself in the muck talking about documents and something called "the deliberative process privilege." It is easy to see why the politics are irresistible for the GOP.
We are likely, but not guaranteed, to see a contempt vote on the floor of the House of Representatives this week. The vote will greatly satisfy Rush Limbaugh and the membership of the NRA. It may cause the White House to make its institutional and political interests the priority and leave the attorney general to take a hit like this. It will cause countless progressives, and much of black and Latino America, to wonder why the first contempt citation to make it through the House will be directed at the first black attorney general. It will lead to more cynicism about the true nature of Congress and whose interests it serves.
A 17 percent favorability rating means never having to say you're sorry.