The face-off between Attorney General Eric Holder and some Republican House members during Wednesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing seemed more like the opening shots of a battle than any real showdown.
In the end, few new details emerged as lawmakers questioned the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer for hours over controversies plaguing the Obama administration, including the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of tea-party groups, the Justice Department’s subpoenaing of Associated Press records, the mishandling of intelligence prior to the Boston bombings, and the administration’s response to the Benghazi attack.
What was clear throughout the afternoon was the deep rift of mutual contempt that runs between many House conservatives and the administration. For some lawmakers, that includes a specific disdain for Holder, the man many of them voted in contempt of Congress back in June for refusing to turn over documents tied to the botched “Fast and Furious” gun-running sting.
And while the Judiciary Committee’s questioning might have lacked coordination and focus, Republican steam appeared to be building toward a round of attacks in coming days.
After the committee hearing, President Obama announced that the acting IRS commissioner, Steven Miller, would resign. But the congressional scrutiny into the matter is just getting started.
On Friday, the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing into the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. The witnesses are to include Miller and J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, who issued a report Tuesday that was highly critical of the way the IRS singled out applications.
Almost certain to create more fire is a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing set for Wednesday. Led by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., it will feature Lois Lerner, director of the IRS’s Exempt Status Division; Neal Wolin, deputy Treasury secretary; and former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman.
Sitting alone in the witness chair Wednesday, Holder listened as Republican and Democratic members alike expressed outrage over the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press communications and the IRS scandal.
Holder told lawmakers that his department’s investigation into the IRS will hold officials accountable if laws were broken. Pressed about department’s subpoenaing of AP reporters’ phone records, Holder said Deputy Attorney General James Cole authorized them, and that Holder had recused himself from the matter.
“The facts will take us wherever they take us,” he said. Still, tension rose when Holder said he did not know the date of his recusal and acknowledged that there was no written record of it.
Holder’s assertion that he could not comment on several other specifics because they are related to an “ongoing investigation” were also not well received. At one point, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said such answers deflect responsibility for things that went wrong. “We don’t know where the buck stops,” he said.
Another tense exchange came when Issa, whose committee probe into the Fast and Furious matter led to the contempt action last year, said that keeping information from Congress is something Holder typically does.
Issa repeatedly interrupted Holder as he started to respond, and finally Holder shot back at Issa: “That’s what you typically do.... That is inappropriate and is too consistent with the way in which you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It’s unacceptable, and it’s shameful.”
Holder took strong exception to an assertion by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, that Lerner lied in her communications with Congress.
He also took umbrage when Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, questioned whether a special prosecutor should be appointed to replace Holder’s department in investigating the IRS matter. Poe asked if that might restore some credibility to Holder’s department and the government in the wake of the controversies.
“I guess I would not agree with your assessment of the lack of credibility,” Holder said.