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Opinion: A Contemptuous Vote in the House

Published on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 | 6:03 am

The House is due to vote Thursday on whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress – setting up a protracted, unnecessary and expensive court battle between coequal branches of government about the extent of executive privilege. To say this is a tragic misuse of Congress’s power is an understatement.

The dispute stems from a botched federal investigation into firearm trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border. In an operation named after a blockbuster movie, “Fast and Furious,” federal law enforcement used the scandalous tactic of letting guns “walk” in hopes of tracking them to the cartels. Unfortunately, federal officials failed to follow the guns across the border. We have learned that the Bush administration tried the same tactic in an operation called Wide Receiver – with similar results. Some guns from Fast and Furious were among those found where a Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, tragically lost his life.

This certainly merits vigorous congressional oversight. But after 16 months, 7,600 documents and nine hearings with the attorney general, the investigation has become unmoored. It is no longer an examination of what went wrong in the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms under both administrations. Rather, it has devolved into the latest partisan attack on the Obama presidency.

Holder has bent over backwards to comply with all the requests from Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-Calif.), chairman of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The attorney general only refused when Issa asked for materials like wiretap applications, grand jury transcripts and internal deliberative communications that the Justice Department is prohibited by law and privilege from providing.

GOP leadership has now made the absurd claim that assertion of executive privilege establishes that the White House was involved in the planning and aftermath of Fast and Furious. This fantasy shows a complete disregard for the well-established facts of this case and the law as argued by administrations from both parties. The White House assertion is backed by decades of precedent that has recognized the need for the president and his senior advisers to receive candid advice and information from their top aides.

So why is the House moving forward with this vote to hold the attorney general in contempt? Because the GOP leadership won’t take yes for an answer. It wants – and needs – a fight.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the fact that the contempt vote is over documents produced after February 2011 – a month after Fast and Furious reached its ignominious end. The papers could not shed light on what Justice Department officials were thinking years earlier. It’s clear that this has morphed into an election year hunt for a senior administration official’s scalp.

This is the type of politics that make the American people fed up. It’s a lamentable distraction from the work we should be doing to get at the real problem – the mutually destructive trade of guns and drugs that has made our southern border less safe, resulted in the deaths of Americans and killed tens of thousands of Mexicans.

Pressing forward with the ATF rules requiring reporting when an individual buys more than one high-powered rifle along the border, as the administration is pursuing, or passing legislation to crack down on gun traffickers and those that provide them with weapons, as I have proposed, would give investigators and prosecutors the tools they have asked for and need.

It is difficult for Americans to grasp the scale and the brutality of the violence in Mexico – the battle against the drug cartels is a literal war for the Mexican authorities. But it’s a war fought with U.S. weapons. The cartels use the U.S. as their armory, because of the easy availability of high-powered firearms.

For all the talk about Fast and Furious, Issa has been loath to discuss the steps we must take to stop the flow of weapons to some of this hemisphere’s most violent criminals.

The irony of this Republican plan to push ahead with a contempt citation is that it can only play out in a predictable scenario. The House will likely pass the resolution on a party-line vote Thursday. The GOP majority will then go to court to obtain the documents. They will settle after months, or years, of costly litigation – and get exactly what Holder offered them last week.

But we will have lost an opportunity to put the politics aside and finally do something meaningful to fight the traffickers flooding Mexico with guns.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is a former assistant U.S. attorney from Los Angeles, where he prosecuted public corruption and government fraud.

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