Yesterday I wrote at some length about how contempt of Congress citations don’t mean very much anymore, despite Attorney General Eric Holder’s occasional complaints to the contrary. If you reach the aristocratic heights of Holder or former IRS Tax Exempt Organizations director Lois Lerner, it doesn’t make much practical difference in your life, or political stature, to get slapped with a contempt notice. It certainly hasn’t put any cracks in Holder’s perpetual stonewall of House investigations.
Since contempt votes are likely to be strongly partisan affairs, if not straight party-line votes, the subject will always find a receptive audience for claims he or she was the target of a witch hunt by the opposing party. This seems especially likely in Eric Holder’s case. And if Lois Lerner gets held in contempt by House Oversight Republicans, it probably won’t stop her from getting that job with Obama’s political action group that she’s been dreaming of… you know, the one she gave express service to, while cracking down on every conservative group Democrat politicians pointed a finger at.
But the Washington Examiner notes there are “tools” the House can use to put some real teeth into a contempt citation, and while they’re not openly threatening to use the sharpest of these tools yet, they’re pointedly refusing to rule it out:
Among those tools is the House’s ???inherent contempt??? authority under the Constitution, which was initially exercised in 1795 during the First Congress and on multiple occasions thereafter. Lerner could be held until January 2015 when a new Congress is seated, which could issue another subpoena and throw her in the clink again if she still balks at testifying.
“I think we’ll deal with that, should that occur, but I think this too is an ongoing investigation, and, frankly, for the attorney general to turn a blind eye to this evidence would discredit him greatly,” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, a Ways and Means Committee member, told the Washington Examiner when asked if the House would take that step if Holder refused to take the case.
“This is a very thorough, deliberate investigation,” he said. “This congressional referral is commonplace when we find evidence of wrongdoing from the legislative branch.”
Brady faulted Justice for having failed so far to pursue “wrongdoing charges” against Lerner. “TheDepartment of Justice prematurely claimed and announced that it would not be pursuing wrongdoing charges, which tells me that they are at this point not taking the investigation seriously,” he said.
But Brady, when asked to rule out the idea of the House using the “inherent contempt” doctrine against Lerner, chose not to do so.
“Let’s hope the attorney general does his job,” he said, after a pause.
Another panel member, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., said it’s “premature” to talk about the House arresting Lerner.
“At this point, we hope the attorney general does his job,” he said.
Notice how they’re saying exactly the same thing, in unison: Let’s hope the Attorney General does his job. Is anybody really expecting that? Are these ominous statements meant to pressure Holder, Lerner, or both?
Of course, they all say talk of extraordinary congressional action is premature. Maybe if the House Oversight Democrat who is part of the scandal is successful in obstructing further investigation, the Obama donor heading up the Justice Department probe will come through! (Just kidding – the Justice Department has already made some strategic press leaks that it’s not going to charge anyone with anything over the abuse of IRS power.)
The Examiner mentions that liberals urged congressional Democrats to set up a House hoosegow back when they were itching to put some Bush Administration officials behind bars, as a way of reining in the imperial executive, but I suspect they’ll have lost some of their enthusiasm for building a dungeon under Capitol Hill since then. (Stop laughing. Liberals used to complain about Bush’s “unitary” powers all the time, before suddenly becoming extremely comfortable with a virtual dictatorship from the White House in 2009. Something must have happened to change their minds, but I can’t imagine what it was.)
But if all the other mechanisms of government accountability have been disabled by a politicized IRS, politicized Justice Department, lawless White House, and partisan media, Congress has to think about invoking previously unthinkable powers. Otherwise, this all ends with a couple of party-line votes, a nasty letter or two… and a sizable portion of the American public having their worst suspicions about our corrupt system vindicated.