Since taking over as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last year, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has been investigating President Obama’s administration with the tenacity of Captain Ahab in “Moby Dick.”
He cast a wide fishing net for any controversial program that might lead to some embarrassment for the Obama administration — ranging from the TARP plan to bail out banks to subsidies given to the failed alternative energy company Solyndra.
Issa’s great white whale, however, is Fast and Furious, the botched program intended to stop drug gangs from trafficking guns from the United States to Mexico.
In recent weeks, Rep. Issa has abandoned all restraint in his effort to prove Attorney General Eric Holder lied by not admitting personal involvement with the failed program.
Earlier this month, Issa took the extraordinary step of trying to get Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to approve holding a House vote on a motion to hold the Attorney General in contempt of Congress. The basis of the charge is that Holder has not fully cooperated with his investigation.
So far, Boehner has resisted Issa’s call for the contempt citation. At a news conference last Friday, Boehner simply offered the comment that “all options are on the table.”
But Issa — like Captain Ahab in his sinking ship — continues to go farther out, beyond the limits of rigorous oversight. He is now in uncharted waters where Democrats are charging that Issa, lacking evidence of wrongdoing, is hauling on board rumors and innuendo in a purely political attempt to defame Holder and hurt the president.
Leading Democrats are now openly saying that Issa’s investigation has nothing to do with guns crossing the border and everything to do with Issa’s political desire to destroy Holder.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight committee, asserts that Issa’s effort has degenerated into an “election–year witch hunt against the Obama administration.” Note that Cummings did not say Issa is after the truth of Fast and Furious. He is instead charging that Issa wants to reel in Holder to get Obama.
The Democrats note that “gun-walking” operations began under President George W. Bush in 2006.
The first plan, called “Operation Wide Receiver,” resulted in hundreds of guns ending up in the hands of suspected arms dealers and some reaching Mexico. The scheme was plotted in response to criticism that the federal government was doing nothing to stop gun trafficking to Mexico.
Republicans in Congress did not raise concerns about the Bush program, even after the initial slip-up.
Issa is also exposing his committee to the possibility of a racial backlash.
The most influential civil rights group in Washington, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, charged in a May 7 letter to Issa that he is pursuing “a rush to judgment intended to create a stain on the office of the Attorney General.”
The letter continued: “The development is particularly disturbing because of the exemplary job the Attorney General has done in enforcing the nation’s civil rights.”
The most perilous rock that could sink Issa’s ship, however, has nothing to do with race. The number one danger is a constitutional crisis.
The Founding Fathers drew a clear line between Congress and law enforcement agencies. They did not want political fights being settled by grandstanding congressmen throwing people in jail. In fact, under the law, it is the Justice Department that would have to enforce the very congressional contempt citation that Issa is seeking.
Congress has the power of oversight but not the power to run a criminal investigation or prosecution.
Holder has come before Congress seven times to testify in the last 18 months and more than 7,000 pages of documents have been given to the House for review.
Yet Issa’s primary complaint is that Holder has not provided all of the documents he has requested. He dismisses constitutional concerns that the more sensitive documents he seeks could jeopardize ongoing criminal investigations.
The Justice Department is supposed to be an independent law enforcement agency, not subject to political influences from the Congress or the president. The Reagan Justice Department was emphatic on this point.
But in recent years that ideal has sunk out of sight. From the stream of attacks on then-Attorney General Janet Reno over the ATF’s raid on a cult compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993 to the firing of U.S. attorneys for political reasons during the Bush administration, both Democrats and Republicans have settled on the Justice Department as a key focus of political attacks.
At the moment more than 100 House Republicans have already signed on to a resolution expressing no confidence in Holder.
That kind of politics is acceptable.
But a contempt citation for the top law enforcement official is a monstrosity breaking apart public trust and dragging the nation’s already polarized politics to the bottom of the sea.
This column originally appeared in The Hill newspaper and on TheHill.com.