The ongoing struggle between the irresistible Democratic House and the immovable Republican presidency escalated again Tuesday. Along party lines, the House voted to hold Attorney General William Barr, and former White House Counsel Don McGahn, in civil contempt of Congress. In response, the Justice Department threatened to invoke Executive Privilege to block House access to documents pertaining to the U.S. Census. It’s the latest skirmish in a conflict that has consumed the capitol and paralyzed policymaking.
House Democrats had contemplated holding Barr and McGahn in criminal contempt, for refusing to turn over an un-redacted version of the Mueller report, and refusing to testify before Congress, respectively. Instead, the vote by the whole House, 229-191, allows committee chairs to pursue civil cases against members of the administration who refuse to, or are blocked from turning over information pertinent to Democrats’ ongoing investigations. “We simply cannot tolerate a posture from the President of the United States . . . of noncooperation,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD).
In a separate, yet related matter, the House Oversight and Reform Committee had planned to hold Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt on Wednesday. The Committee had sought documents relating to the Trump administration’s inclusion of the controversial citizenship question on the 2020 Census. On Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd sent a letter to Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD), warning of a blanket invocation of Executive Privilege if the committee voted as planned. “The Department will be obliged to advise that the president assert executive privilege with respect to certain of the subpoenaed documents,” Boyd wrote, “and to make a protective assertion of executive privilege over the remainder of the documents.”
As you might expect, Republicans had plenty to say in response to the House majority’s acts. “Americans are tired of this witch hunt,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) said succinctly. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) accused his colleagues of nothing less than a fundamental misunderstanding of how American government works. “The President of the United States does not work for the Congress of the United States,” Cole said. “He works for the American people. He runs a co-equal branch of government.” Republicans insisted the Mueller investigation is over, and as such, Congress should be focused on other issues, particularly border security.
While there appears to be no clear end in sight to the tug of war between Congress and the White House, Tuesday’s vote was a small backing down by House Democrats. A minority of members, mostly Democratic backbenchers, want to press on with impeachment proceedings, with varying degrees of speed. Most Democratic members, their leadership, and Speaker Pelosi disagree, preferring, for now, to use the investigations to educate the electorate for next year. History doesn’t often repeat itself, but it does sometimes rhyme. Eight years ago, Republicans recaptured the House, and produced what some would later call “investigations to nowhere”— and a re-elected president in 2012. Speaker Pelosi and her leadership team must also be wary that past doesn’t become prologue.