The system of checks and balances works best when the separate branches of government are inherently and proudly adversarial toward one another. But that can’t happen when partisanship defines when and how accountability moments play out.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa — the headline-hungry California Republican who on Wednesday engineered a committee vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt — forgot that essential rule.
He failed to build a credible case or a credible coalition for his initiative. After a day of increasingly ridiculous posturing, Issa secured the contempt citation he sought. But is came on a straight party-line vote that rendered the decision all but meaningless.
The chairman’s heavy-handed style invoted the reproach that the contempt vote was "nothing more than a political witch hunt," as People for the American Way president Michael Keegan termed it.
“To be sure, Congress has a legitimate interest in investigating Operation Fast and Furious, but Chairman Issa and Republican majority on the Committee appear to be more interested in scoring political points than in getting to the bottom of what happened," argued Keegan, who added that, “The hoops the Committee is demanding the Attorney General jump through illustrate that these contempt hearings are as partisan as they are extreme. Over the course of this ‘investigation,’ the Committee has ordered the A.G. to produce documents whose confidentiality is protected by federal law, has refused to subpoena Bush Administration officials to testify about their knowledge of the operation during their time in office, has refused to allow public testimony from officials whose testimony counters Issa’s partisan narrative, and has repeatedly rejected the A.G.’s efforts to accommodate the committee, making compliance all but impossible."
Issa’s actions undermined not just his own credibility but any sense that he and his allies might be acting in defense of — or with any regard for — the Constitution.
There is no reason to suggest that Holder is above criticism for his actions as Attorney General. He has been called out by Democrats as well as Republicans on a variety of issues. And he has not always managed his response to Issa’s abuses well. Nor should anyone who vaiues transparency and government oversight be pleased when a president determines that it is necessary to invoke “executive privilege” in a fight with Congress, as Barack Obama has done to thwart Issa’s demands.
But it is Issa whose actions have been contemptible. He is demanding deliberative documents that are ordinarily off-limits to Congress, a big ask, yet he has not built a credible coalition of supporters for the demand. And when the details of the documents and the issues involved are laid out—along with the offers by Holder to brief the committee—it quickly becomes evident that the committee chairman is so unwilling to compromise that he won’t take “yes” for an answer.