During Bush Era, Parties Were Reversed on Contempt

Posted June 20, 2012 at 10:01am

Updated: 2:14 p.m.

On Monday, Rep. Peter Welch’s office arranged an interview with the Vermont Democrat for him to strongly criticize the GOP on moving ahead with contempt proceedings against Attorney General Eric Holder.

Asked during the interview whether he supported the House, then controlled by Democrats, when it held two senior George W. Bush administration officials, Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten, in contempt of Congress in 2008, Welch said he did not remember.

Here is what he said in a February 2008 press release touting his “yes” votes on contempt: “President Bush needs to dust off his copy of the Constitution. Congress has a constitutional obligation to conduct oversight of the executive branch and we will not shrink from this responsibility.”

Welch is hardly alone.

On a range of issues, the participants in Congressional oversight wars from both parties have shown remarkable flexibility in their positions, with shifts usually deriving from which political side of the aisle is in the hot seat.

For instance, Democrats have recently pointed to Sen. John Cornyn’s record after the Texas lawmaker, who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called for Holder to resign at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week.

In 2007, Cornyn questioned whether Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who was then serving as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was pushing an investigation of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for political reasons, pointing to DSCC fundraising efforts based off of the investigations.

And when the full House voted on the two contempt votes in 2008, then-Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) led a Republican protest by walking off the House floor during the vote, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called the investigation at issue, regarding the firing of seven U.S. attorneys, a “witch hunt.”

During the later years of the Bush administration, then-Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) threatened contempt proceedings against numerous officials, including then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey, then-EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson and Susan Dudley, a top official at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“I regret that your failure to produce responsive documents has created this impasse, but Congress has a constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch. Therefore, unless the documents are provided to the Committee or a valid assertion of executive privilege is made, the Committee will meet on June 20 to consider a resolution citing you in contempt,” Waxman said in a 2008 letter.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), then-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in announcing a committee vote on contempt, “If the executive branch can disregard Congressional subpoenas in this way, we no longer have a system of checks and balances.”

Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) defended Conyers after he moved on contempt proceedings on Miers and Bolten.

“[Conyers] has tried over and over again, I think 13 times, to find some kind of accommodation,” Pelosi said.

Conyers even argued the future of the republic was on the line.

“Do you think constitutional government in the United States can survive if the president has the unilateral authority to reject Congressional inquiries?” he asked.

After the House held Miers and Bolten in contempt, the Judiciary Committee sued the two aides in federal district court.

In August 2008, a federal judge ordered Miers to testify and Bolten to turn over documents, overruling the administration’s claim of executive privilege. That ruling was appealed.

In March 2009, a year after the suit was filed, Miers and Karl Rove, who had also become ensnared in a separate contempt proceeding, agreed to testify behind closed doors to the House Judiciary Committee. The deal broke the stalemate.

Welch said the two situations were “wildly different” in that in the Fast and Furious probe, Republicans have not thoroughly investigated gun-walking during the Bush administration. Also, Issa’s subpoenas were far broader than necessary, Welch said.

In remarks at the contempt hearing, Welch said that there are “gettable” votes to hold Holder in contempt on the Democratic side of the aisle but that Issa’s investigation has turned some Democrats away because it is too partisan.