Bush Aides in Contempt; Will They Be Prosecuted?

The House Judiciary Committee has approved contempt citations against two Bush administration officials who refused to comply with congressional subpoenas after the White House asserted executive privilege.

Congress wants information from White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers in connection with the ongoing investigation into the dismissal of a group of U.S. attorneys.

Committee Republicans had argued against the citations, calling them a partisan waste of time. Democrats called it a necessary defense of Congressional power.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) said that if Congress challenges the president in court, the president will likely win. "That is going to be viewed as a blank check by the president and the future president to do whatever they want to," said Sensenbrenner. He said the president could then "effectively stiff Congress in discharging their oversight responsibilities."

But Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) argued that this is the moment for Congress to rein in the administration.

She told the committee, "If we allow the White House's mere utterance of executive privilege to thwart our efforts to conduct legitimate oversight and gather critical information needed to consider changes in federal law, then we will have set a shameful precedent for many Congresses to come."

After hours of debate, the House Judiciary Committee approved the contempt citations on a party line vote, 22 to 17.

White House spokesman Tony Snow called the move "pathetic."

"There is an attempt to do something that has never been done in American history, which is to assail the concept of executive privilege, which hails back to the administration of George Washington," Snow said.

Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) said the White House is the one attempting to do something unprecedented.

"Unlike other disputes involving executive privilege," Conyers said, "the president has never personally asserted privilege. The committee has never been given a privilege log, and there is no indication the president was ever personally involved in the termination decisions" about U.S. attorneys.

Now the full House will vote on the measure. It's likely to pass, since Democrats are in the majority. But that doesn't mean it will definitely end up in court. The administration has said it will direct federal prosecutors not to prosecute contempt charges.

Primer: Congress' Contempt of Charges Showdown

The House Judiciary Committee has voted to issue contempt of Congress citations against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and President Bush's former legal counselor, Harriet Miers, for ignoring their subpoenas. In doing so, House lawmakers have entered choppy legal waters. In the past, Congress has issued hundreds of "contempt citations," but rarely to members of the executive branch. Here are some answers to the thorny legal questions involved, and a look at how the tug-of-war between the White House and Congress might play out.

The Judiciary Committee has issued citations. What happens next?

The full House votes on whether to formally issue contempt of Congress citations. That probably won't happen until after Congress's August recess. If the motion passes, the case is forwarded to the federal attorney for the District of Columbia, Jeffrey Taylor. He is a Bush appointee who once worked at the Department of Justice headquarters.

Will the case actually get prosecuted?

Not likely. President Bush has claimed that Miers and Bolten are protected under executive privilege and, therefore, are not compelled to testify. One possibility, legal scholars say, is that Taylor could recuse himself from the case and appoint a special prosecutor to handle it.

Is contempt of Congress a criminal offense?

Yes. It's a federal misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and a one-year prison sentence.

Has anyone ever been jailed for being in contempt of Congress?

Yes, dozens of people have been jailed for contempt of Congress. One of the more notorious cases occurred in 1969, when Robert Jones, a "Grand Dragon" of the Ku Klux Klan, served one year in jail for failing to provide records to a congressional committee.

It is much less common, though, for Congress to hold members of the executive branch in contempt. In fact, it's only happened once in the post-Watergate era. In 1982, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Anne Gorsuch-Burford, under orders from President Reagan, refused to turn over documents involving the Superfund scandal. The full House voted to hold her in contempt. The Justice Department declined to prosecute, though. Eventually, after a long legal battle, the two sides reached a compromise, and the White House turned over the requested documents.

Are there any other legal options open to Congress?

Technically, yes. Congress has its own "inherent power" of contempt. It entails Congress stopping all other work and holding its own trial. Those found guilty are imprisoned in the basement of the Capitol. This provision, though, hasn't been used since 1935, and it's extremely unlikely that the current Congress would resort to such drastic measures. "It's a horse-and-buggy law," says Charles Tiefer, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore and former congressional staffer.

Why are congressional Democrats going ahead with these contempt citations if they know the charges will be blocked by the White House?

The Democrats calculate that they have nothing to lose politically. This way, analysts say, Democrats can claim that they've done everything in their legal power to compel Miers and Bolten to testify. That puts the ball back in the White House's court.

Are the courts likely to get involved?

No. In the past, they've been reluctant to rule on issues of executive privilege. They tend to view such cases as political questions — and let Congress and the White House slug it out.

So how is this constitutional tussle likely to be resolved?

These constitutional tug-of-wars are usually resolved through a negotiated settlement. This one is likely to be no different.

Already, Congress has dropped one of its demands: that Miers and Bolten testify publicly. But, for now, lawmakers are sticking to another requirement: that any testimony (or "interviews," as the White House prefers) be recorded and transcribed. Congress is also insisting that the White House turn over additional documents.

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