“Are congressional subpoenas to be honored or are they optional?” House Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers asked Thursday.
It was a rhetorical question.
Conyers, who has served on the Judiciary Committee long enough to remember the Watergate-era clashes between the executive and legislative branches that were supposed to have resolved that issue, knows that congressional subpoenas are backed up by the full power of the U.S. Constitution.
Unfortunately, President Bush is not so familiar with the dictates of the Constitution and the rule of law it outlines.
So, says Conyers, “Apparently we have to run this out.”
“This” is the process by which former White House counsel Harriet Miers could be held in Contempt of Congress for failing to appear before a Judiciary Committee hearing to which she had been summoned to testify about the role she and other key figures in the administration played in efforts to politicize federal investigations and prosecutions.
Miers was to have testified Thursday. But she failed to appear after the president ordered his former aide to defy the committee.
Bush asserts that he has the authority — via a dramatically inflated interpretation of his executive privilege — to declare that his former counsel is not bound by the rules that require individuals who are subpoenaed by Congress to cooperate.
The president appears to believe that he has the authority to obstruct an investigation that could eventually come to focus on his action.
The chairwoman of the subcommittee, California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, disagrees.
In what was the most dramatic moment yet in the clash between the Congress and the Bush White House, the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on administrative law was gaveled into session Thursday by Sanchez.
Across from the committee members was an empty chair at the table from which Miers was to have testified.
Sanchez ruled Bush’s assertion of executive privilege out of order, declaring, “Those claims are not legally valid. Ms. Miers is required pursuant to the subpoena to be here now.”
The subcommittee then voted 7-5 to sustain Sanchez’s ruling. Said Congressman Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, “What we’ve got here is an empty chair. I mean, that is as contemptuous as anybody can be of the government.”
Such contempt can have consequences.
Unless the president backs down, the full Judiciary Committee is expected to vote to hold Miers — a longtime friend and legal adviser to Bush who the president nominated for the Supreme Court — in contempt.