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?”
After decades without a monumental DC headquarters, the ATF headquarters building at 99 New York Avenue opened at last in 2008. It was designed by the firm of famed architect Moshe Safdie (I am told he designed Habitat67) at what is affectionately known as “Dave Thomas Circle” because of the Wendy’s prominently located in the traffic around the intersections of New York Ave., Florida Ave., and 1st Street. The result is a beautiful fortress. One story says the building’s design was modified to address new security concerns in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. At least one person I’ve talked to says this version is overstated, but it’s hard deny the symbolism.
Who isn’t running government? Ask Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) acting Director B. (Byron) Todd Jones, who has served since November 2011when the previous acting director resigned amidst the so-called “fast and furious” scandal. Jones is the ATF’s fifth acting director since 2006, when Congress first stipulated nominees to the position require Senate confirmation. Domenech (2006), Sullivan (2006–2009), Carter (2009), Melson (2009–2011), Jones (2011–) – my math says that’s a new director almost every year. Meanwhile, like the Bush administration nominee preceding him, Obama’s 2010 nominee Andrew Traver has languished in the Senate.
For many Americans, “fast and furious” epitomizes government at its most incompetent. ATF agents allowed guns to “walk” – standing-by as illegal guns were smuggled across the border into Mexico. One tragically killed a U.S. border agent, igniting a firestorm. In other words, being ATF director is difficult and demands the confidence of others. I am certain acting Director Jones is a competent administrator. It is no secret that acting officials are often more knowledgeable and well-respected. But the position’s authority is diminished because of the unshakable uncertainty that word “acting” signals.