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Renner: Democratic Leaders Delay Contempt Again

Democratic Leaders Delay Contempt Again

By Matt Renner
t r u t h o u t | Report

Thursday 24 January 2008

Nearly seven months after the House Judiciary Committee voted to hold Bush administration officials in contempt of Congress, the Democratic leadership has again delayed action on the matter.

Just two weeks ago, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi seemed prepared to bring the contempt citations against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to the House floor for a vote when Congress came back from their winter break this week.

The contempt citations were issued in July 2007, when Bolten and Miers refused to cooperate with the Congressional investigation into the potentially criminal firing of nine US attorneys by the Bush administration. Initially, Pelosi signaled her support for the citation of contempt, but has repeatedly delayed a vote on the matter.

According to top Democratic leaders, the effort to pass an economic stimulus package currently stands in the way of the most recent attempt to move the citations to the floor for a vote. Lawmakers are apparently apprehensive to take action that could derail bipartisan cooperation on the economic package. Pelosi's office has not set a time frame for the vote.

"Right now, we're focused on working in a bipartisan fashion on stimulus," House majority leader Steny Hoyer said.

However, the need for bipartisan cooperation on the economic stimulus plan does not answer a key question: Why has Speaker Pelosi delayed a vote on contempt, a vote she has previously said she supports, for almost seven months?

Spokespeople for House Democratic leaders did not return requests for comment. Democratic aides contacted by Truthout were not willing to discuss the intraparty debate regarding contempt on the record.

Bush claimed "executive privilege" to prevent his advisers from turning over documents and from giving testimony to investigators. This action was referred to as "stonewalling" by investigators because it severely limited the ability of Congress to figure out who was behind the firings and why the nine prosecutors were fired. The House Judiciary Committee voted to reject Bush's claim and to hold the officials in contempt of Congress in July of 2007.

"[The Bush administration has] disregarded the call of Congress for information about their politicizing the Department of Justice. We can document that. Those are actual facts and we will bring the contempt of Congress forth," Pelosi told reporters on July 20, 2007.

After the 2007 summer recess, the US attorney firing investigation fell off the front pages, in part because two of the major subjects of the investigation, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and presidential aide Karl Rove, resigned. At the time, Democrats insisted a deal with the White House had not been made and the investigations would continue despite the resignations, but little substantiative action has been taken by the Democratic leadership since.

In anticipation of a floor vote, the House Judiciary Committee prepared an extensive contempt report laying out the case for contempt. In October 2007, the Washington, DC, newspaper Roll Call quoted an unnamed Democratic aide who said the contempt vote was going to take place in November. In December, a Democratic aide told Truthout the vote would take place before the end of the month. Both predictions proved false.

Just before the winter break, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to charge Rove and Bolten with contempt of Congress, although Senate majority leader Harry Reid has not yet set a date for a full Senate vote.

Even if the House or Senate were to charge Bush administration officials with criminal contempt, it is unlikely the officials would be charged. A criminal contempt charge would have to pass through the Department of Justice (DOJ) and be brought to trial by the US attorney for Washington, DC, Jeffrey Taylor, a deeply connected administration prosecutor who served in the DOJ at the time of the firing scandal.

Bush administration officials previously stated they would not enforce Congressional contempt citations against current or former administration officials. Under questioning during his confirmation hearings, current Attorney General Michael Mukasey ducked questions about the enforcement of Congressional contempt citations.

Even if Mukasey allowed the criminal contempt citations to go to trial and the Bush administration officials were found guilty, Bush could pardon them.

"The Democratic leadership is presumably aware that the President can ultimately short-circuit any contempt process by using his pardon power," said Ohio State University Law Professor and separation of powers expert Peter Shane.

Shane has advocated the use of Congressional appropriations powers to force the executive branch to cooperate with the ongoing investigations. In a column in Roll Call, Shane said Congress should "refuse any further appropriation to pay senior advisers in the Executive Office of the President who are not serving in advice-and-consent positions," unless and until the White House decides to negotiate with Congress. According to Shane, this move would be a "surgical strike," because it would "entail no real risk to any function of the executive branch critical to the daily lives of American citizens."


Matt Renner is an assistant editor and Washington reporter for Truthout.

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