On Contempt of Congress

Since taking control of Congress in January, the Democratically-controlled House and Senate have been investigating the role the White House played in the mass firings of eight US Attorneys last fall. Subpeonas were issued, some documents were turned over, and then, the capper. Former Bush aide (and Supreme Court nominee) Harriet Miers was subpeonaed and… never showed up.

If subpeonaed, one doesn’t not show. Even if you won’t (or can’t) say anything, you sit there, under the lights, and sit there like a clam.

But not Harriet Miers. President Bush claimed that Executive Privilege covered her (and bizarrely, also covers the Republican National Committee, an organization that, last time I checked, wasn’t actually part of the government), and that privilege meant she didn’t have to comply with the subpeona.

Now the House is striking back, and we head toward a Constitutional showdown.

The House of Representatives is preparing Contempt of Congress citations against Miers and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten:

The White House has said that Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former legal counselor Harriet Miers, among other top advisers to President Bush, are absolutely immune from subpoenas because their documents and testimony are protected by executive privilege.

House Judiciary Committee Democrats, led by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., reject that claim and have drafted for a vote Wednesday a resolution citing Miers and Bolten with contempt of Congress, a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to a $100,000 fine and a one-year prison sentence.

But as I noted last week, and as the MSNBC article makes clear, a Contempt of Congress citation faces hurdles in enforcement–the Justice Department has made clear that Contempt of Congress citations won’t be enforced:

If the citation passes the committee and then the full House by simple majorities, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi then would transfer it to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. The man who holds that job, Jeff Taylor, is a Bush appointee. The Bush administration has made clear it would not let a contempt citation be prosecuted because the information and documents sought are protected by executive privilege.

The Justice Department reiterated that position in a letter to Conyers on Tuesday. Brian A. Benczkowski, principal deputy assistant attorney general, cited the department’s “long-standing” position, “articulated during administrations of both parties, that the criminal contempt of Congress statute does not apply to the president or presidential subordinates who assert executive privilege.”

Is the goal to “shame” Bush and his administration in the court of public opinion? Because it hasn’t worked thus far; Bush ignores data he doesn’t want to hear….

Actually, I think the endgame in mind is far different–“shame” Bush in the eyes of Republican Congressmen and Senators. A Congressional subpeona has already been defied, and defiance on Contempt of Congress citations would show, quite publicly, the Bush administration’s dismissal of Congress as a co-equal branch. The institutional integrity of Congress would be diminished if the Contempt of Congress citations aren’t enforced, and even Republicans wouldn’t stand for that. What if they controlled Congress in a President Hillary Clinton administration? Would they want President Clinton to be as dismissive of their perogatives as Bush has been of this Congress? The Republicans are enabling this behavior on the part of the Bush administration, and Contempt of Congress citations will help crystalize the issue of what’s at stake.

Oh, the drama. The drama.

This could get fun.

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