What Does This Say About The System?

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From the December 13, 2007, New York Times:

Contempt Vote in Panel for Bush Aides
By DAVID STOUT

WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Thursday to hold a present and a former aide to President Bush in contempt of Congress, but it is by no means clear that they will be dragged before the lawmakers anytime soon.

By 12 to 7, the committee voted citations against Joshua B. Bolten, the White House chief of staff, and Karl Rove, the president’s former chief political adviser, for refusing to comply with subpoenas in a Congressional inquiry into the firings of nine federal prosecutors.


The committee vote sends the issue to the full Senate, which Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, said would take up the issue next month. Mr. Bolten already faces contempt charges in the House, as does Harriet E. Miers, the former White House counsel, over the prosecutors’ firings.

“I vote for the contempt citations knowing that it’s highly likely to be a meaningless act,” said Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the judiciary panel’s ranking Republican. Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa was the other Republican who joined the panel’s 10 Democrats in voting for contempt charges.

The White House has invoked executive privilege in asserting that its present and former aides cannot be compelled to testify. Many lawmakers, including some Republicans, disagree.

“Executive privilege protects certain communications between the president and his top advisers,” said Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat on the judiciary panel. “It doesn’t shield criminal conduct, it can’t thwart Congress’ constitutional oversight responsibility, and, contrary to the president’s belief, it’s not an absolute, blanket protection from answering Congress’s questions.”

The White House dismissed the Judiciary Committee vote as meaningless. “The constitutional prerogative of the president would make it a futile effort for Congress to refer contempt citations to U.S. attorneys,” the chief White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said. “The Department of Justice would not require a U.S. attorney to convene a grand jury or otherwise pursue a prosecution of an individual who carries out a president’s instruction not to provide documents or testimony on the basis of the president’s assertion of executive privilege.”

Should the Senate or the House actually vote to hold anyone in contempt, the next legal step would be a referral to the office of United States attorney for the District of Columbia, Jeffrey A. Taylor. Mr. Taylor is a former counselor to two former attorneys general, John Ashcroft and Alberto R. Gonzales, and is a Bush administration appointee who might be reluctant to prosecute.

Contempt of Congress is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison. But in practice, disputes between Congress and the White House in which the specter of contempt charges has been raised have been settled well short of the jailhouse door.

The last time a full chamber of Congress voted on a contempt citation was on May 18, 1983. By 412 to 0, the House cited Rita M. Lavelle, a former official of the Environmental Protection Agency, for refusing to appear before a panel investigating hazardous-waste programs. She was acquitted in court of the contempt charge but convicted of perjury in another trial and served several months in prison.

In late 1982, the House voted, 259 to 105, to charge Anne Gorsuch Burford, administrator of the E.P.A., with contempt. The case was dropped after lawmakers gained access to the documents they wanted, and the United States attorney for the District of Columbia refused to prosecute in any event.

Over the years, House committees have voted contempt citations against former Attorney General Janet Reno, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and former Interior Secretary James G. Watt for balking at Congressional inquiries. Those cases never got to the full House.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is headed by Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. In addition to Mr. Biden, the panel’s other Democrats are Senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Dianne Feinstein of California, Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, Charles E. Schumer of New York, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

The other Republicans on the committee are Senators Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Jon Kyl of Arizona, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

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