Separation of Powers

House Committee OKs Contempt Citations

Updated: The House Judiciary Committee has voted to forward to the full House a recommendation to issue contempt citations against former White House counsel Harriet Miers and White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten.

The vote was 22 in favor and 17 against.

House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., recommended approval of the contempt citations for the officials’ refusal to comply with subpoenas issued in a probe of U.S. attorney firings.

He opened the proceeding today saying the probe is not about whether U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the administration. Rather, he said, the probe concerns whether administration officials can make hiring decisions to influence pending criminal investigations and whether Americans can be assured the laws are being fairly enforced.

Conyers was critical of the president’s assertion of executive privilege in the matter. When “privilege can be asserted on the thinnest basis and in the broadest possible manner, then we’ve already lost,” he said.

He and other Democrats argued that Congress has nothing to lose by forcing a constitutional showdown with the Bush administration, according to the Associated Press account of the proceedings.

The New York Times reports that a compromise could still be worked out before the full House takes a vote.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, spoke against a contempt citation. He said claims of executive privilege are not unusual and courts have recognized the need to keep the advice of presidential aides confidential. He said the committee should take the White House up on its offer for informal conversations with Miers and White House political adviser Karl Rove.

U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, said the evidence does not support allegations of wrongdoing. “My sense is that the American people are really disgusted by the partisanship, the pettiness” of the contempt effort, he said.

Conyers replied that the committee has been hampered in its efforts to prove wrongdoing because the administration is withholding needed evidence.

Miers refused to testify about the firings two weeks ago, and Bolten has refused to turn over documents related to the firings. A senior White House official recently suggested that federal prosecutors have no power to pursue a contempt case because of the president’s privilege claim.

The official, who remained anonymous, cited a 1984 Justice Department legal opinion issued when Congress issued a contempt citation against Anne Gorsuch Burford, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. (See this post for details.)

A report by Conyers claims the legal opinion does not apply to a former official such as Miers, the Washington Post reports. It also says Bush has not properly invoked the privilege because he did not specify the documents he was withholding.

Republicans offered unsuccessful amendments to the report supporting their viewpoints about the probe.

Originally posted 07-25-2007 at 09:16 AM.

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