Our first priority in Congress has to be paving the way for a revived economy and job creation. This week, the House acted in two critical ways to support job growth by passing the Domestic Energy and Jobs Act and the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act. These bills support jobs in both the industrial and medical research sectors of our economy.
We have to keep our priorities straight, but we also have a responsibility to make sure that all the parts of a vast federal government are working properly. Today, we have grave concerns that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the Department of Justice acted recklessly in the botched "Fast and Furious" operation.
Fast and Furious was based in previous attempts to arrest individuals acting as "straw" purchasers for Mexican drug cartels. During the Bush administration, Operation Wide Receiver let guns go over the border where they were supposed to be interdicted by Mexican authorities.
Early in the Obama administration the ATF changed course and began letting the guns go until they showed up at crime scenes. Lower level ATF officials objected throughout the operation. After Fast and Furious weapons showed up at the scene of the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, agents blew the whistle informing the Justice Department Inspector General and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
The ATF denied that guns had been allowed to "walk" in a February 2011 letter to Sen. Grassley. Eleven months later, in December 2011, the Justice Department retracted that letter.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has been investigating the Fast and Furious operation to determine who approved the initial operation, who was aware of the controversial gunwalking tactic and who approved the attempted cover-up.
In October 2011, the committee issued a subpoena to the Department of Justice requesting documents related to the operation. After eight months, the department still has not provided what was requested, even though a follow-up letter in May of this year narrowed the request.
Government departments cannot keep records from Congressional committees. In most cases, when Congress issues a subpoena the administration must comply or cite specific reasons why documents should remain sealed. Officials who refuse requests for documents or testimony can be held in contempt of Congress.
In this case, it is Attorney General Eric Holder who has refused to turn over the files. In a face-to-face meeting with Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) last week, Holder offered to release the files but only if the investigation was dropped.
Then, minutes before the committee voted to hold the Attorney General in contempt, the President claimed that the documents should be sealed because of executive privilege. The President is allowed to withhold documents if they are communications between him and top White House officials. However, this claim may contradict the Holder's earlier claims that the White House was not involved with decisions regarding Fast and Furious.
Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced that the whole House will vote on the motion next week. Congress isn't like the judiciary. We do not have the power to imprison those held in contempt. There is no jail in the capitol basement for offenders. Should the contempt motion pass, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia will have to determine how to enforce the subpoena.
The stonewalling here seems to be part of a sad pattern of the administration falling short on the President's promises of transparency. When White House staffers wanted to avoid attendance logs that would show meetings with lobbyists, they went down the street and met at a Caribou Coffee. Even though the White House orchestrated the health care deal with drugmakers, the President claimed the deal was only between the Senate and the pharmaceutical association.
I honestly hope that we don't vote on contempt next week. The Attorney General knows exactly what documents he needs to produce. He can do so at anytime. There are still many questions left unanswered. Meanwhile, a U.S. Border Patrol Agent's family grieves their loss and Fast and Furious guns continue to show up at Mexican murder scenes.