The House Judiciary Committee is preparing to vote Wednesday on contempt charges against former White House counsel Harriet Miers and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, a vote that could force a showdown with the Bush administration over its right to block contempt proceedings.
Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) announced Monday that the committee would meet Wednesday to vote on contempt proceedings for the two because they refused to respond to the committee’s subpoenas for testimony and documents in the investigation of the firing of nine U.S. attorneys late last year. Miers and Bolten have refused to comply with the subpoenas at the direction of the White House, which has asserted that they are protected from Congressional subpoena power by executive privilege.
The House has two legal authorities for pursuing contempt charges: One, a “statutory contempt finding,” leaves it up to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia to bring the case to a grand jury; the other allows Congress to handle the case on its own.
Despite a story in The Washington Post last week in which an anonymous “senior administration official” said the White House would not allow the U.S. attorney to pursue a contempt case against Miers or Bolten, Conyers’ plan would place the matter in the hands of the U.S. attorney. Staff members were unavailable Monday to explain why he is choosing that route.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow was less explicit Monday about how the administration would respond to a contempt proceeding. In his daily press briefing, Snow said, “Ultimately what happens is, if, in fact, there is an attempt to try to put together a contempt citation, that goes to the Department of Justice. And the Department of Justice will make a determination on merits.”
But Snow added, “It is important to note that certainly the tradition when it comes to dealing with such matters has been one in which, for separation of powers reasons, the Justice Department has, in fact, been reluctant to do such things.”
Snow said the Democrats’ pursuit of contempt charges is simply political theater, noting that the White House already has made thousands of pages of documents available to investigators and has offered to allow senior staff to sit for informal interviews with no transcript or oath. “If you want the facts that enable you to make the determinations on the merits of whatever your suspicions may be, we’re making them available,” Snow said. “It seems now that we have a fishing expedition that’s woefully short on fish.”
But a Democratic leadership aide who asked not be named dismissed any allegation of political grandstanding.
“This has always been about trying to get to the truth behind the scandal. … This started with serious questions that remain unanswered,” the aide said.
And Judiciary’s effort does have the support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said Conyers and the Speaker have been communicating as the committee’s battle with the White House has escalated, and “she thinks we should move forward.”
Pelosi told reporters in California on Saturday, “They have disregarded the call of Congress for information about their politicizing the Department of Justice. We can document that. Those are actual facts and we will bring the contempt of Congress forth,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
With the support of Democratic leaders in the House, a contempt citation may not be hard to achieve. The House can pursue a contempt proceeding without any involvement from the Senate, and it requires only a majority vote, legal observers said Monday.
Daly and other Democratic aides said the contempt citation was scheduled to be a topic of the weekly leadership meeting that began as Roll Call was going to press.
Conyers’ decision to route the contempt proceeding through the Justice Department may indicate that Democrats are more interested in a showdown with the White House than actually forcing Miers and Bolten to testify, said one lawyer close to the matter who asked not to be identified. This source suggested that for Democrats, the political issue of most value is a White House “stonewalling” of an investigation by Congress.
But Stan Brand, a lawyer who was part of the Democratic legal team that brought contempt charges against then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Ann Gorsuch in 1982 — the last time the full House has approved a contempt charge — said Conyers’ decision makes perfect sense.
“You don’t know what a U.S. attorney will do,” Brand said. “It is possible that a U.S. attorney will exercise some independent authority.”
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee blasted Conyers’ decision. Ranking member Lamar Smith (Texas) issued a statement Monday declaring: “The decision by Democrats to pursue contempt of Congress citations against former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and current Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten is a misuse of Congressional power for purely political reasons … their investigation has more to do with partisan politics than fact-finding.”
But committee member Chris Cannon (R-Utah) said while a contempt citation would be a terrible mistake, there is not much Republicans on the committee can do about it. “We’ve totally lost it here … we don’t have any ability to stop it.”