The Senate Judiciary Committee moved to revive a fading congressional zeal for holding the Bush administration accountable to Congress on Thursday by passing contempt resolutions against two of four White House officials who have refused to fully comply with committee subpoenas. The resolutions passed 12 to 7, with Republicans Charles Grassley of Iowa and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania voting with the Democrats.
Specter’s vote came reluctantly, issued only after his attempts to mollify the White House reached an impasse. Specter told the committee that he had accepted the White House’s position that presidential aides should be allowed to testify in private, not under oath, and without a transcript. But he drew the line at a White House demand that inquiries into the U.S. Attorney scandal come to an end. “We cannot abrogate or relinquish our constitutional responsibilities,” the Republican insisted.
White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove now face the possibility of being held in contempt by the full Senate – a process that would require a majority vote and that could touch off a showdown in the courts over the limits of congressional oversight and the validity of President Bush’s claims of executive privilege.
Perhaps more significant than today’s vote – which comes just over one week before Congress adjourns for winter recess and thus will not likely be brought before the full Senate for quite some time – is that it ends a long hibernation for the once-lively conversation about the White House’s obstruction of congressional oversight.
Late in July, the House Judiciary Committee held similar proceedings, during which it cited Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers for contempt. On Nov. 5, the committee filed an 800-plus page report with the clerk of the House. The tome was dominated by an enormous minority report, a slog of questionably relevant details likely meant to both slow down the process and set up the Republicans’ argument against contempt charges once the matter makes it to the floor.
A long silence has followed the House citations, however. A number of Democratic aides contend the majority has had to tackle a host of major legislative debates – including SCHIP, FISA, Energy, and appropriations bills – which have pushed to the fore and forced a delay in action on the contempt citations.
But critics – concerned that Democrats have, intentionally or otherwise, allowed the public outcry over White House constitutional abuse to dissipate – aren’t pleased by the delay. They worry that, to prevail, Congress must act in a timely manner, and that failure to do so could result in a defeat that will have broad, lasting consequences for congressional oversight. Worse, some suspect that many members of the caucus don’t want to pursue the fight at all.
“Many presidents have overreached by claiming executive privilege to hide documents and witnesses from public oversight, and each time Congress has slapped their hands,” said ACLU’s Washington director Caroline Fredrickson, in early October. “Today’s Congress must do the same if it wishes to operate as a meaningful and equal branch of government. … It’s do or die time for the separation of powers.”
Thursday’s Senate ruling offers the House an opening to get moving again as well. It can proceed in a number of ways: The leadership can bring the committee’s citations to the floor promptly, capitalizing on the momentum provided by the Senate. It can wait, potentially for a time when both bodies can vote on contempt at the same time. Or, of course, it can continue to do nothing.