The House voted on Thursday to Attorney General Eric Holder in both criminal and civil contempt of Congress, following a months-long investigation of the Justice Department and Operation Fast and Furious.
The final vote for criminal contempt was 255-67, with only two Republicans voting “no.” 108 Democrats abstained from voting on what they have long argued is a politically motivated stunt. This was the first time a sitting cabinet member had been held in contempt of Congress. The matter will now go before a grand jury to determine whether or not the Attorney General will be charged with a federal crime.
Shortly afterwards, the House also voted 258-95 in favor of holding the Attorney General for civil contempt. The House will now petition a federal judge to enforce a House Oversight Committee subpoena for documents related to their ongoing investigation of Operation Fast and Furious. The judge will also have license to determine whether or not executive privilege is applicable to those documents.
Numerous Democratic representatives, including the Congressional Black Caucus, walked out of the chamber before voting began. In a press conference with the abstaining legislators, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) excoriated the vote as an “abuse of power.”
“One branch is not supposed to have excessive force over another,” she said.
In a press conference, Holder stridently denied any wrongdoing, and called the day’s vote a “regrettable culmination of what became a misguided and politically motivated investigation.”
For months, Holder has been dogged by the House Oversight Committee’s investigation into a now-discontinued law enforcement program called Operation Fast and Furious. The operation was part of a larger initiative called Project Gunrunner, begun under the Bush administration, which aimed to uncover high-ranking Mexican drug cartel members by allowing traceable firearms to fall into their hands. In 2010, controversy exploded when U.S. Border Agent Brian Terry was killed by one of the guns used in this program.
Following the 2010 congressional elections, incoming House Oversight Committee chair Darrell Issa (R-CA) launched an aggressive investigation into Operation Fast and Furious and particularly the Obama-era Department of Justice. Holder testified before Issa’s committee numerous times and turned over hundreds of thousands of documents, but Issa alleged that he was withholding information that, while not directly relevant to Operation Fast and Furious, would reflect poorly on the DOJ’s response.
After a last-minute attempt to resolve the stand-off failed, President Obama asserted executive privilege over the relevant documents, with the administration arguing that releasing them would, according to ABC News, “compromise ongoing investigations and reveal internal executive-branch deliberations.” Nonetheless, on June 20, the House Oversight Committee voted to cite Holder for contempt of Congress and forward the matter to the full House.
The following day, the National Rifle Association announced that they would be scoring the contempt vote, possibly swaying Democrats in pro-gun districts to vote for contempt, or at least avoid voting against.