Last week’s unprecedented House floor vote holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt looks first of all like escalating institutional conflict at the confluence of divided government and partisan polarization. My research on congressional investigations with David Parker, like our “Divided We Quarrel” (2009) – offers this sort of reading. But the 21 Democrats who defected, 21 voting to hold Holder civil and 17 voting to hold Holder in criminal contempt highlights a different story about the power of interest groups like the National Rifle Association in Congress. Slate’s Explainer asks, “Why is the NRA so Powerful?”
This enlightening New York Times infographic illustrates the geography of Democratic defections on the Holder vote – again largely rural districts where presumably support for gun ownership is high. This CNN report includes some analysis linking NRA support with Democratic defections – I’m sure there are others scrutinizing the Holder vote. (If you see something, please let me know!) The NRA’s decision to “score” the vote, including the vote in the calculation of its candidate ratings, put enormous pressure on Democrats who rely on the NRA (or at least the absence of the NRA’s active opposition) in conservative and rural districts. NRA advocates made clear this was a vote not just about the administration and Attorney General Holder failing to comply with a committee subpoena, but about the threat to gun owner Holder and the administration are presumed to represent. The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre articulates the argument against Holder:
“Attorney General Eric Holder has a long career of opposition to the Second Amendment…His refusal to disclose what many suspect is another example of anti-Second Amendment behavior has brought him to this historic moment of resistance and shame. The people of this country will not be denied a clear understanding of what transpired behind closed doors over a period of years that sure looks like it is connected to a political agenda.”
Or, as the NRA’s Chris Cox puts it in this interview, “Eric Holder’s contempt for the Second Amendment is the only thing that is probably is stronger than Congress’s contempt for Eric Holder.” Not very poetic, but a remarkable commentary nonetheless. Returning to an earlier issue without drawing causal arrows, the “contempt” in Congress for Attorney General Holder and those charged with enforcing gun laws correlates with the erosion of leadership capacity in ATF. Whether or not using the Senate confirmation process to neuter ATF’s leadership represents a conscious strategy, constant turnover and uncertainty in the director’s position there is, as the positivists would say, observational equivalence.