June 20th, 2012
12:31 PM ET

What happens if panel cites Holder for contempt?

The House Oversight Committee is considering a contempt measure against Attorney General Eric Holder over documents sought by the panel investigating the botched gun-running sting called Operation Fast and Furious. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama entered the dispute by asserting executive privilege over the documents sought by committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California.

Here are the issues around the dispute:

Q: What is a contempt citation?

A: Congress can vote to hold a congressional witness in contempt of Congress if it considers the witness to be obstructing its ability to carry out its constitutional powers. For a person to be held in contempt, Congress must vote on a contempt citation in committee.

The process involves a series of legal maneuvers including the president’s ability to assert executive privilege, as he did in this case, which has historically made executive branch officials immune from criminal prosecution.

Q: Why is a contempt citation being considered against Holder?

A: Issa may hold Holder in contempt for failing to hand over all of the documents relating to Operation Fast and Furious, the botched Justice Department sting operation linked to the death of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry and a number of Mexican citizens from some of the 2,000 weapons that fell into the hands of Mexican drug gangs.

Q: When is the last time an executive branch official faced a contempt citation?

A: Although this is the first time an attorney general has faced a potential contempt citation, other executive branch officials have been held in contempt of Congress.

Most recently, George W. Bush White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten were held in contempt of Congress despite Bush asserting executive privilege in their case. During the vote in early 2008, a large number of Republicans walked out in protest of what they saw as a partisan vote.

Miers and Bolten were accused of failing to cooperate in a congressional investigation into the mass firings of U.S. attorneys and allegations that the White House was using the Justice Department for political aims. Their citations marked the first time White House officials had been found in contempt of Congress.

Q: What happens next?

A: If the committee votes to cite Holder for contempt, it will go to the full House for a vote.

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Filed under: Politics