As part of his ongoing fascination with the "Fast and Furious" controversy, House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) released a draft memo yesterday, making the case for holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. Is a major showdown brewing? It's possible, but it's unlikely to happen anytime soon.
As Issa sees it, Holder and the Justice Department have not responded quickly enough to House Republicans' demands for materials. The DOJ has said it's already given Issa and his committee over 7,600 pages of documents, and continues to provide more, but it's cautious about the public release of materials that could undermine ongoing criminal cases. (This is a position endorsed by a Reagan-era Office of Legal Counsel memo.)
Issa, however, has an election season to think about, and seems principally concerned with what might be exploited for partisan gain. How concerned should Holder be about this? Not very -- even if House Republicans seriously pursue a contempt resolution, the issue "would take years to sort out."
Stan Brand told TPM that Holder really shouldn't be worried because of how cumbersome the contempt process can get, describing contempt proceedings as "mostly for show" and a "circus event." The House would have to vote before it pursued civil remedies in court.
"I can't really take it seriously because as you know for the last 30 years the Justice Department -- both Republicans and Democrats -- has taken the position that you can't enforce the contempt statute against members of the executive branch who assert privilege or some other defense to the subpoenas," Brand said.
"I wouldn't be [worried] if I were advising the Attorney General, I'd say read the precedents and go about your business. Don't worry about it, it'll be 2014 before this gets resolved," Brand said.
As a rule, when committee chairs start huffing and puffing like this, the various officials work out some kind of arrangement. Of course, those traditions were established before House Republicans decided compromises were a menace. The worst case scenario: the House holds Holder in contempt and instructs the House sergeant at arms to try to arrest the Attorney General, creating a bizarre constitutional crisis.
That's an exceedingly unlikely scenario, though.
The larger context to all of this is that congressional Republicans are so desperate to uncover any kind of administration scandal that they waste a lot of time and energy on investigations that -- by their own admission -- are little more than political stunts.
In the "Fast and Furious" matter, for example, there can be no doubt as to the GOP's motivations.
Tea Party Caucus member Steve King (R-Iowa) said Republican leadership is wary of using investigations it's conducting of the administration for political gain, especially when it comes to Operation Fast and Furious, a botched gun-tracking program.
"I think leadership doesn't want to be seen as using the gavels here for political purposes," King said in an interview. "I think there's a bit of an aversion to that. Me? I have no reservations about that. This is politics."
That's not a quote from a liberal Democrat attacking Issa and his witch hunt; that's a quote from an Issa ally making a candid confession.
Even Issa himself has said he looks at his foolish investigations as "good theater."
To be sure, these House Republicans aren't the first to use congressional power to play political games, but it's tough to take their faux outrage seriously when it's so obvious this is a silly stunt.