For weeks, House Republican leaders were reluctant to push a political fight against Attorney General Eric Holder too far, but as of this week, it looks like House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is calling the shots.
To briefly recap, Issa wants more information about the "Fast and Furious" controversy. Holder and the Justice Department have said they've already made over 7,600 pages of documents available, and continue to provide more, but are 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.)
Yesterday, the seriousness of the dispute intensified a bit.
House Republicans on Monday signaled that they would take the first step toward citing Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. with contempt of Congress if he does not turn over more Justice Department documents related to the botched gun trafficking investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious.
Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House oversight committee, announced on Monday that the committee would meet on June 20 to vote on whether to recommend that the full House hold Mr. Holder in contempt.
Though House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have generally been quiet about Issa's tantrum, yesterday they both expressed their support for Issa's position.
So, what happens if Issa follows through on his threats and successfully pushes a contempt measure? This has the potential to get a little ... messy.
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. With this in mind, there is a 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, but the possibility at least exists.
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 -- which causes glee among Fox News personalities, but does little else.