From left, Representative Terri Sewell, D-AL, Representative John Lewis, D-GA, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Representative Bobby Rush, D-IL, Representative Eliot Engel, D-NY, Representative Luis Gutierrez, D-IL, and other House Democrats leave Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 28, 2012, in protest of a House vote holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Want to see the future? Or, at the least, a version of what might be coming?
Consider the House vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. It was pointless, divisive and crude in its overt intents and covert overtones. And if Barack Obama is re-elected with a Republican Congress, we will see a lot more of it.
Obama continues to lead Mitt Romney in most national polls, and in most polls from the battleground states. He is not a cinch to be elected. But the prospect is real enough. By the same token, the impact of the hyper-partisan redistricting process and influence of Karl Rove’s Citizens United money combine to give Republicans a real chance to win both the House and Senate.
If that happens, nothing will happen—except more theater-of-the-absurd political gimmicky like what was on display with the vote to make Holder the first sitting member of a presidential Cabinet to be held in contempt by Congress.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa, the California Republican who combines a decent measure of intellect with an overwhelming measure of ambition, actually admitted on the eve of the vote that he did not have any evidence to suggest that Holder was involved in nefarious activities. But, because Holder and President Obama maintained some basic controls on the circulation of information relating to the ginned-up Fast and Furious “scandal” in particular and national security in general, Issa played out a charade that was unprecedented in American history.
Anyone who thinks that Issa will not do the same in a second Obama term, and that he and other Republican committee chairs won’t take things much further—even to the point of a Clinton-style impeachment gambit—is delusional.
What to do?
Take the 2012 elections seriously—not just the presidential election but elections up and down the ballot. Not just the main event of Democratic versus Republican clashes (which could still yield Democratic gains if he party runs populist and progressive) but the pattern of Republican primaries, where relative moderates are being challenged by the crash-and-burn squad that would turn the Grand Old Party into nothing more than an mangle of birther conspiracies, Ayn Rand fantasies and efforts to make Rush Limbaugh look reasonable. (Remember that, while Issa got his way in the House, two Republicans—including former prosecutor Stephen LaTourette, R-Ohio—voted “no.” In the Senate, there are even more sensisble Republicans who have distanced themselves from Issa’s showboating.)
But, also, show some respect (as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has) for the wise approach of the Congressional Black Caucus to Issa’s contemptible behavior. Black Caucus leaders were quick and unapolegetic about dismissing the contempt vote as a “political stunt” and about circulating a letter to House colleagues that declared: “Contempt power should be used sparingly, carefully and only in the most egregious situations. The Republican Leadership has articulated no legislative purpose for pursuing this course of action. For these reasons we cannot and will not participate in a vote to hold the attorney general in contempt.”
That’s the right way to respond. Not with cooperation in a Congressional variation on the Star Chambers of old but with outright rejection of the very premises on what which the gambit is based. As the San Francisco Examiner editorialized in support of the rejection by Pelosi and the Black Caucus of the contempt charade, “Issa is a partisan back-bencher. But he holds the power of subpoena, and he isn’t ashamed to use it for venal reasons. Pelosi has called him on it, and she can be proud of her words and deeds.”
There has to be a pushback, or chairs like Issa will just push further when it comes to unprecedented acts of partisanship, ideological witch hunts and show trials. And the Black Caucus framed the pushback with great skill during the run up to and on the day of the June 28 contempt vote.
Issa got the House vote he wanted. The chamber voted 255 (238 Republicans, seventeen NRA Democrats) to 67 (65 Democrats, 2 Republicans) to hold Holder in contempt. But the real story was that 100 members of the House—ninety-nine of them Democrats—chose not to participate in the Congressional charade. Most of those who did not participate in Issa’s piece of performance art were members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
The most powerful image of the day was the actual walkout by the objectors, with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, joining civil rights icon John Lewis, D-Georgia, and Luis Gutierrez, the Illinois Democrat who is a key Hispanic Caucus spokesperson on border and immigration issues, leading the way.
Pelosi seems to have been genuinely influenced by the focus and determination of the Black Caucus members who refused to play Issa’s game.
“I’m very moved by the members of the Congressional Black Caucus who say they are going to walk out on this,” Pelosi said on the House. “Walk out on this. Perhaps that’s the best way. How else can we impress upon the American people [the absurdity of the circumstance] without scaring them about what is happening here?”
It is the best way. There are some charades that responsible members of Congress should not join in—even as objectors.
After all, as Pelosi says, “It’s Eric Holder one day, you don’t know who it is next.”
Pelosi is right. Not just about the unfortunate prospect that the rankest of the rank partisans are not done with their witch hunts but about the right response. Don’t play the game. Withhold consent. Walk out. When Issa and his ilk act contemptibly, let them own their shame.