a history of contempt

Yesterday, the House Oversight and Reform Committee voted to recommend Attorney General Eric Holder be held in contempt of Congress. The “Fast and Furious” scandal represents a sorry episode – and, to this observer at least, suggests symptoms of  long-term deficiencies of leadership and oversight. But yesterday was pure oversight theater. Almost six hours of hearings filled with angry recriminations between committee Democrats and Republicans cement Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa’s legacy in the annals of congressional contempt.  The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe observes:

Issa may want to be remembered as a serious, nonpartisan leader of government reform efforts, but Wednesday’s contempt vote — and the possibility of a full House vote on the matter next week — likely will cement his status as a partisan antagonist in the eyes of Democrats and a hero to conservative Republicans — whether he likes it or not.

If you aren’t familiar with Chairman Issa, Ryan Lizza’s January profile in the New Yorker will not disappoint. He’s no Dan Burton, but wait! Yes, that was former Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton sitting behind the dais yesterday as a member of the committee. Burton dogged the Clinton administration with  committee investigations – most notoriously the suicide of Clinton friend Vincent Foster.  Having Burton there yesterday gave the hearings  throwback appeal.

A few memorable moments in the annals of congressional contempt, with details drawn from CRS report, “Congress’s Contempt Power and the Enforcement of Congressional Subpoenas: Law, History, Practice, and Procedure” (RL34097):

Karl “ham” Rove

On July 30, 2008, the House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend that the House of Representatives find Karl Rove in contempt of Congress for refusal to comply with a subpoena. In March 2009, the Bush administration negotiated a deal to resolve the Committee’s lawsuit and contempt charges in return for access to previously subpoenaed documents and testimony former White House officials Harriet Miers and Karl Rove.

Janet Reno

On August 6, 1998, the Government Reform and Oversight Committee voted to recommend the House of Representatives hold Attorney General Janet Reno in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents related to the committee’s investigation. The recommendation was not taken up on the House floor for a vote.

Anne M. Gorsuch

In a rare case that actually reached a floor vote, on December 16, 1982, the House voted 259 to 105 to hold EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents related to a House Public Works and Transportation Committee investigation. The episode ultimately lead to Gorsuch’s resignation.

James G. Watt

On February 25. 1981, the House Energy & Commerce Committee voted to recommend Interior Secretary James Watt be held in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a committee subpoena. The issue was resolved through a negotiated agreement without a vote on the House floor.

So, we’ve been here before, and after the fireworks the White House and the committee typically come to an informal agreement before a floor vote. That said, the House Republicans seemed set to take an historic vote. But looking over the history today, it’s  worth noting these seem to occur largely during periods of divided government. That’s certainly consistent with my research with Dave Parker showing increasingly partisan congressional oversight in recent decades, particularly in the House of Representatives.


1 thought on “a history of contempt

  1. Pingback: contempt! | bureauphile

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