What is Fast and Furious: Obama Takes Criticism for Controversial Gun Running Program

Attorney General Eric Holder is facing a contempt of Congress vote at 4pm today after his refusal to hand over documents pertaining to the 2009-2011 "gun-walking" operation run by the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Under the program, U.S. law enforcement allowed weapons purchased by suspected criminals with alleged ties to Mexican drug cartels to go uninterrupted in the hopes that tracking the guns would ultimately lead to large-scale gun-running and drug busts. In December 2010, a U.S. Border Patrol agent was shot and killed by a suspected illegal immigrant using a gun that was being tracked by the ATF. That shooting prompted the congressional investigation led by Government Oversight Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R - Cal.). 

See bottom of the page for more background.

5:17 pm: That's a wrap for this live blog. 

5:16 pm: Holder giving defiant post-vote remarks at Justice Department.

5:13 pm: When Eric Holder doesn't pursue criminal contempt charges against himself, it will be interesting to see if the House decides to bring forth articles of impeachment against the Attorney General. Although impeachment is a serious matter, his removal from office would require a two-thirds vote by the Senate--an extremely unlikely scenario. 

5:00 pm: Amusing spat between Issa and Elijah Cumming (D - MD) on the House floor. Any way we can bring back dueling to make American politics more exciting?

4:44 pm: The person who would be in charge of pursuing criminal contempt charges is the local U.S. Attorney, who works for Eric Holder. So essentially, if criminal charges are to be filed, Eric Holder would have to bring the charges against Eric Holder. 

4:38 pm: Down goes Holder! Down goes Holder! 255-67; 108 Democrats refuse to vote, while 17 of them join the Republicans in voting for contempt.

4:33 pm:  Contempt vote underway. Lots of Democrats not voting and walking out of the chamber in protest.

4:23 pm: Dingell motion goes down. Listen to the bell, Holder. It tolls for thee.

4:09 pm: 15-minute vote on the ill-fated Dingell amendment starts now.

4:08 pm: Freshman Trey Gowdy (R - SC) is yelling - literally yelling- like a crazy person on the floor of the House. He sounds like a very angry Kermit the Frog with a Southern accent. 

4:02 pm: Issa trashes Dingell in floor speech. So much for respecting one's elders. (Pay no attention to my wisecrack below.)

4:00 pm: Dingell is currently introducing his motion. He's 85 years old, but he doesn't look a day over 83. 

3:56 pm:  John Dingell (D - MI) submits a motion to kill the contempt effort by referring the matter back to the Government Oversight and Reform committee. Spolier alert: It's not going to pass.

3:54 pm: Issa closes all floor speeches. 

3:41 pm: Darrell Issa (R - CA) keeps yielding himself 10 seconds at a time after so he can take potshots at Democrats who just finished their floor speeches. Let it go, dude. 

3:37 pm: Pelosi says the Democrats are going to walk out of the House after debate has finished. Looked like the vote will be even more lopsided. 

3:25 pm: Nancy Pelosi (D - CA) is just meandering through her floor speech. She seems very tired and a little out of it. Like she just came from the dentist.

3:18 pm: Carolyn Maloney (D - NY) slams House Republicans for their unwillingness to pass federal gun-trafficking laws; cries hypocrisy.

3:11 pm: I haven't seen this many congressional Republicans care so much about gun violence since......

3:07 pm: Steny Hoyer (D - MD) is going on a rampage in his floor speech. Is he really this passionate about protecting "deliberative process privilege"?

3:01 pm: Is there anything more vapid than one politician accusing another politician of "playing politics"? 

2:52 pm: Impassioned floor speeches are being made on both sides of the aisle ahead. It's hard not to imagine that if the Fast and Furious fiasco happened with a Republican in the White House, the two parties in Congress would take the opposite positions they're taking now. The Democrats--who often chided the Bush administration for its generous employment of privilege as an excuse for withholding information--now find themselves defending privilege with uncharacteristic vigor. Meanwhile, the Republicans are talking about the need for transparency in government, a total 180 for them since the heyday of the Bush administration.  

What is Fast and Furious?

Operation Fast and Furious was the name given to a gun-walking operation executed by the Obama administration between 2009 and 2011. Under this plan, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms—a branch of the Department of Justice—allowed guns purchased by suspected criminals to “walk,” instead of intervening in the hopes that trailing the purchasers would lead to large-scale gunrunning and drug busts. In this case, suspects monitored through Operation Fast and Furious purchased more than 2,000 firearms—more than 300 of which have popped up at crime scenes in the U.S. and Mexico. One of those crime scenes was in Arizona near the U.S.-Mexican border, where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was shot and killed after encountering five suspected illegal immigrants in December 2010. Most of the firearms allowed to “walk” are unaccounted for, and it is believed that most of them found their way into the hands of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel.

Why is Eric Holder facing a contempt vote today by the House of Representatives?

As U.S. Attorney General, Holder is the nation’s chief law enforcement officer and oversees several agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which ran Operation Fast and Furious. Shortly after the Terry shooting, House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform began investigating operation, requesting Holder answer questions before the committee and provide documents pertaining to the program. Holder has testified before Congress on this issue, and the Justice department has provided more than 7,000 pages of documents. However, Oversight committee chairman Darrell Issa (R - Cal.) has requested that Holder turn over all documents related to Fast and Furious—a request Holder has denied, even after being subpoenaed. Last Wednesday, the committee responded by agreeing to move forward with a vote of the full House on whether to hold the Attorney General in contempt of Congress.

What does it mean to be held in contempt of Congress?

To be held in contempt of Congress means that Congress believes a person has obstructed its work, typically by refusing to comply with a subpoena it has issued. In this case, Holder and the Obama administration are citing “executive privilege,” or more specifically, “deliberative process privilege” as justification for withholding certain documents. The idea behind the concept is to ensure the free exchange of ideas during the policymaking process without the participants having to worry about their remarks being made public later on. Critics of privilege, however, cite the need for transparency in government decision-making.

What happens if Congress votes to hold Holder in contempt?

Being held in contempt of Congress is a misdemeanor that can carry with a fine. Beyond this, however, contempt citations have had little real impact. For one thing, the official in charge of investigating contempt charges in this case would be the local U.S. Attorney, who is of course a Justice Department employee. Historically, the department has not brought criminal contempt charges against those in its own administration. Beyond this, the House could opt to file a civil lawsuit against Holder in federal court in order to get him to turn over the documents in question.