There is something charmingly futile about House Republicans' move to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. Even if the full House follows the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's vote Wednesday to hold him in contempt, the decision about whether to prosecute him will be left to a Justice Department run by … Eric Holder.
In deciding whether to prosecute himself, Holder would have to consider whether there are enough prison cells to incarcerate all the other people who are contemptuous of Congress in a country where only 15 percent of the public has a favorable view of the body. And Wednesday's contemptible antics won't help that statistic.
Republicans didn't have much on Holder — it's one of those perennial disputes about how much the executive branch needs to divulge to the legislature -- so they did what sensible people usually do when they have an honest disagreement: They accused the attorney general of being an accessory to murder. "On the night of Dec. 14, 2010, in a canyon," Chairman Darrell Issa of California began dramatically, border agent Brian Terry was in a firefight with Mexican bandits. "A bullet pierced agent Terry's aorta, and he died in that canyon." The chairman went on to say that "the committee has uncovered serious wrongdoing by the Justice Department" in the matter and that "the Terry family is still searching for answers."
Rep. John Mica of Florida had the answer. The committee had an obligation to hold the attorney general "responsible for what turned into a horrible death of one of our agents," he said. "This is the highest judicial prosecutorial position in the United States, involved in creating a situation in which an agent of the United States was murdered."
One after the other, Republicans on the panel waved the bloody shirt. "Here's the proof!" hollered Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, claiming he had evidence that President Obama knew about a botched federal program that contributed to Terry's death. Gowdy's proof: that Obama cited executive privilege in denying the committee all the documents it sought. "If he's not part of it, then he's got no business asserting executive privilege," Gowdy concluded.
Terry's death is indeed a scandal, part of the Fast and Furious operation in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lost track of 2,000 guns it was planning to trace on their way to Mexican drug cartels; two of those firearms were found near Terry's body. After that, the Justice Department shut down the program (which had followed similar "gun-walking" operations during the George W. Bush administration), fired or reassigned several people who ran the program out of ATF's Phoenix office, requested an inspector-general investigation and handed over about 7,600 pages of records to Issa's committee.
Casting doubt on motives
Republicans want to know whether top officials at Justice or the White House knew about the gun-walking program, which, although they haven't turned up evidence of this, would be a reasonable line of inquiry. But casting doubt on their motives are the documents they are demanding: only those since February 2011 — two months after Terry was killed and the program was shut down.
In unusually caustic terms, the committee's ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, accused Issa of "highly inflammatory personal attacks" on Holder (including calling him a "liar" on television) and said Issa "had no interest in resolving this issue." The committee's Republicans had essentially one answer to all of this: agent Terry.
By the end of the session, his name had been invoked no fewer than 54 times. "We have a dead United States Border Patrol agent, and we have a government that's withholding information so that we cannot … get to the bottom of it," said the volatile Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah.
The indignation would sound more genuine if Republicans weren't going after Holder over what has happened since Terry died.