One Victory, No Cheers

House Republicans hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress—but they can’t celebrate.

Eric Holder.

Attorney General Eric Holder was held in contempt by the House today

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Shortly before they voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, Republicans claimed to be in agony.

“This is a sad day,” said Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford.

“There is no joy in this,” said Michigan Rep. Tim Walberg.

For Republicans, certainly, days hardly get sadder. Shortly after 10 a.m., they learned from CNN and Fox News that the Affordable Care Act had been overturned. Shortly after that—after some of them had started celebrating—they learned that the act had been upheld.

The next few hours were a carnival of meetings, gaffes, apologies for gaffes, and promises to hold another vote—there have been more than 30—to overturn all or part of the health care law. After that loomed the contempt vote, which Republicans were going to win.

But they couldn’t treat it like a win. The resolution punished Holder “for failure to comply with a congressional subpoena,” for not releasing tranches of documents related to the ATF’s “gun-walking” programs—under which federal agents purportedly recorded the serial numbers of weapons and then tracked how they were used as they were trafficked to cartels in Mexico. Practically, the vote meant that the Holder case would be referred to the U.S. Attorney’s office, which can punt if it wants to. Politically—hang on, don’t say anything about politics!

“It looked like [Government Oversight and Reform] Chairman Darrell [Issa] gave the White House a lot of opportunities to de-escalate,” said Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), before the vote.

The focus was on transparency and executive overreach: Holder and company had slow-walked Congress, withholding information and acting in the grand, distressing tradition of executive branches everywhere. In February 2011, the DOJ claimed that it had no knowledge of the ATF’s Arizona gun-walking bungle, the “fast and furious” operation. It later retracted that. As Katherine Eban explained in Fortune, the whole saga was one of government officials back-biting, spinning their back-biting, and otherwise avoiding transparency.

But you’d have to remove part of your brain to miss the politics. In March 2011, early on in the investigation, National Rifle Association vice president Wayne LaPierre speculated about a possible conspiracy. “They wanted to prove that there were guns flowing to Mexico,” he told CBS News, “so they set up an illegal pipeline to send guns to Mexico.” This was a robust seven months before a CBS investigation of the available disclosed documents actually suggested that, yes, ATF agents were apt to use the details of crimes carried out by the walked guns to advocate for stronger gun regulations. That’s not quite the same as an “Architects of Fear”-style plot, but at the NRA’s April 2012 convention, Issa floated the idea.

“Could it be that what they really were thinking of was in fact to use this walking of guns in order to promote an assault weapons ban?” he asked. “Many think so. And they haven’t come up with an explanation that would cause any of us not to agree.”

Schweikert dismissed the idea that many conservatives hold this theory. “That’s a complete leftist folklore,” he said. “At no time—you can look at the statements from my office, my speeches—have we said oh, this was about the White House’s secret plot to restrict firearms. When you see that on MSNBC and other outlets, I hate to say it, but it’s almost like a flourish a magician uses to distract you.”

But it was real. On June 20, the NRA sent a letter to the Issa’s oversight committee promising to “score” the vote—counting it on the report cards that are released to tell voters whether their member is pro-gun or not. “Heightening our concerns, and requiring our involvement,” wrote NRA executive director Chris Cox, “is the White House’s use of this program to advance its gun control agenda.” Democrats like Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz, who would vote for contempt on transparency grounds, had to consider this issue of whether gun-walking was part of a plot to restrict the Second Amendment.

“That’s a motive that was certainly not spelled out,” said Walz today, before the vote. (He’d voted for contempt against Bush’s White House counsel Harriet Miers and Chief of Staff Josh Bolten in 2008, so he was being consistent.) “The problem is that leaving these things as speculation opens it up to what could be. I don’t think it’s helpful to speculate, to be honest, but that’s [the NRA’s] prerogative. They’re an interest group […] and that’s what they believe. The teachers’ unions speculate about vouchers trying to destroy public education. I’ve been a teachers’ unions member.”

When the floor debate started, the letters N, R, and A were safely tucked away from view. Republicans, to a man, began or concluded their remarks with the name of Brian Terry, the border patrol agent gunned down in December 2010 by weapons walked in “fast and furious.” Schweikert had previewed this for me, sort of. “As I take my vote, I’m hitting my credit card button to donate to HonorBrianTerry.com,” he said. “We thought there’d be an interesting symbolism to that.”

There was. “There are questions about our motivations,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). “Let me be clear about my motivations. We have a dead U.S. agent. We have more than 200 dead people in Mexico.” Democrats who enabled the administration were denying justice to a grieving family, he said. “I can tell you this—the family of Brian Terry doesn’t have answers. You don’t have answers.”

Issa managed the debate with iPhone in hand. The Brian Terry story would not be lost on anyone. To make sure, he gave his own remarks in front of a blown-up portrait of the agent in uniform, right above the dates of his birth and death. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), a House senior statesman, offered a (doomed) motion to stop the contempt vote. Issa warned him that the Terry family had already condemned any such efforts in a letter.

“When you say you represent the Terry family, you do not,” said Issa. He produced the letter. “Among the statements in there are—his statements do not represent the Terry family. … he has never spoken to the Terry family.”

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), a former D.A. with a gift for drama, cast an even darker pall on the mood. Democrats, he said, acted as though they’d settle for “50 percent of the truth, a third of the truth.” How could they? “Have you ever sat down with these parents who have lost a child? It is a humbling, emotional, life-altering experience. All they want is the truth!”

Gowdy’s voice broke as he finished; the Republican side of the chamber burst into applause. Chaffetz patted his colleague on the back. Issa sent a tweet: “That was amazing.”

The vote on the criminal contempt resolution was a fait accompli—255-57 for contempt, with 17 Dems on the “yes” side and two Republicans voting no. Most Democrats walked out of the chamber, just as Republicans had in 2008, when Miers and Bolten were held in contempt. The motives of their 17 defectors weren’t hard to figure out. But what about the two Republican dissenters, Ohio’s Rep. Steve LaTourette and Virginia’s Rep. Scott Rigell?

“These things,” LaTourette told PRI reporter Todd Zwillich, “have a funny way of coming back around at you.”