I cannot for the life of me figure out why the Obama White House is dealing with the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee as it is. As I presume you know, yesterday the committee voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to deliver the documents it had demanded of him. Whatever the White House thinks of the members of the Republican members of the committee and whatever their motivations, they are engaged in a legitimate inquiry and exercise of Congress’s oversight powers. AG Holder should have dumped the entire 180,000 pages on them eight months ago. Now he has a contempt citation from the committee, in all likelihood to be followed by a contempt citation from the the full House, with that followed by a civil case which a) the White House will lose; b) will keep this story in the headlines (something it has heretofore largely avoided) for the next several months; c) embarrass the White House more than releasing the documents would have done.
For background on the case I recommend this post from Meteor Blades and for background on the legal issues I recommend this one from Doug Mataconis at OTB. For background on executive privilege and the contempt citation see here.
Presumably, the calculation is that invoking executive privilege will be less embarrassing than what the committee will find in the papers they’re asking. A key problem with this is that the position previously held by the Justice Department, that the whole matter is one of lower level officials acting imprudently, is inconsistent executive privilege. It reminds me of this Benchley short:
The vignette I’m thinking of is about six minutes in and involves Benchley checking into a hotel with his wife, a distinguished-looking matron, and looking so guilty and hesitant in the process as to convince the desk clerk that he’s up to something. He couldn’t be more nervous if he were checking in with a streetwalker.
There’s something that all parties in this should keep in mind. The branches of government are co-equal. The Congress is not subordinate to the executive nor vice versa. However, their responsibilities are not symmetrical. Congress has a constitutional responsibility to oversee the executive but the president has no comparable responsibility. Further, the president is there to do the people’s business. Not his party’s business. Not the business of those who voted for him or contributed to his campaign but the business of all of the people.
The members of the Congress are there to do their constituents’ business. Consequently, the president has a heightened responsibility to work with the Congress however oppositional the Congress might be.
My intent is not to try to make a case that ATF, the Justice Department, AG Holder, or the White House are completely innocent. I simply don’t know. They might be pure as the driven snow or guilty as sin. My point is that if the White House is trying to appear innocent they’re not doing a very good job of it.