Holder contempt vote is dysfunctional Washington as usual

Most Americans probably haven't given much thought to the botched gun trafficking investigation by theBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosivesknown as "Fast and Furious." What they do know are probably the most embarrassing details — agents lost track of 2,000 guns that were allowed to "walk" in order to investigate higher-ups in a drug cartel, and two ATF weapons were found at the scene of a 2010 shootout in which a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed.

But this week, the matter is threatening to evolve into something much larger. A Republican-controlled House panel has recommended that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. be cited for contempt of Congress because they say he has not provided sufficient documentation to the committee. And President Barack Obama has invoked executive privilege to block the committee from taking further action against Mr. Holder and his department.


We don't know what might be in the missing documents. The department has already turned over thousands of pages, and what the panel has been focusing on publicly seems pretty thin stuff, mostly about the treatment of whistle-blowers and who knew what when (whether receiving a memo means you actually read it, for instance). Considering that operations similar to Fast and Furious occurred under the Bush administration, and guns were lost by the ATF then, too, the rhetoric coming out of the committee members and their amen corner in the right-wing media seems entirely disproportionate to the circumstances.

But we do know this: To hold the nation's top law enforcement official in contempt because of a reluctance to give carte blanche access to all of the department's internal documents is the equivalent of launching nuclear missiles over a trade dispute with Canada. No sitting attorney general has ever been held in contempt, and it's only the third time in 30 years that a committee has recommended it.


Surely there are better, more appropriate options available, and the two sides could have found some reasonable accommodation. But that doesn't appear to be the goal of the committee's volatile chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, who famously labeled the Obama administration as the "most corrupt government in history" — and apparently has never read a U.S. history book that included mention ofUlysses S. Grant, Warren Harding orRichard M. Nixon.

It's pretty clear that Mr. Issa is out to embarrass the president in an election year and that Mr. Holder is his preferred stand-in. Mr. Holder has already drawn the extreme ire of conservatives for standing up for voting rights of minorities in disputes over voter photo ID laws, refusing to defend federal restrictions on same-sex marriage and for asserting the federal government's authority to set immigration policy in Arizona. President Obama's decision to invoke executive privilege only seems to further that effort — if only because, as a U.S. senator, he argued against the use of that authority.

If this all sounds reminiscent of President Bill Clinton's time in office, when the GOP loved to trot out investigations and subpoenas — and the administration chose to invoke executive privilege on multiple occasions — that's probably because it is. That a contempt citation would ultimately have to be enforced by one of Mr. Holder's own prosecutors shows just how ridiculous and fruitless a road this is for the House to travel.

And here's the most head-spinning twist: To give some actual drama to the investigations, Mr. Issa and other Republicans are treating Brian Terry, the Border Patrol agent killed in the line of duty, as a victim of those who stood by and allowed criminals to buy guns in the U.S. In other words, drug-trafficking thugs don't kill, guns do. And the National Rifle Association agrees! The gun lobbying group has already announced that it will score a vote in favor of holding Mr. Holder in contempt as a pro-gun vote.

Is it possible for the public's view of Congress to sink below the 25-year low it's already achieved? If the House approves the contempt citation, that might just happen. Meanwhile, what the average voter will get out of this is mostly yada, yada, yada, the usual highly partisan bickering that comes out of Washington these days, yada, yada, yada.