There have been far too few accountability moments since Democrats retook control of the U.S. House and Senate in January, 2007.
But one came Thursday, when the House voted 223-32 to hold former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with subpoenas to testify before Congress in relation to the firing of nine United States Attorneys in 2006.
A pair of resolutions -- one that directs the U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C. to bring criminal contempt charges against Bolten and Miers to a grand jury and another that authorizes the House general counsel to bring a civil suit against the White House to settle the question of whether the testimony of Bolten and Miers should be covered by executive privilege -- received the backing of 220 Democrats and three anti-war Republicans (Ron Paul, the renegade presidential candidate from Texas; Wayne Gilchrest, who lost his seat in a Maryland primary Tuesday; and Walter Jones of North Carolina).
The move was opposed by 31 Republicans and one Democrat (Texan Henry Cuellar, who backed Bush for reelection in 2004 and this year backs Hillary Clinton.) At the behest of House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, 163 Republicans were recorded as "not voting." Ten Democrats did the same.
Thursday's House decision was historic, not just for its specific response to the lawlessness of two prominent members of the Bush-Cheney administration but for its broader message. With this action, Congress is beginning to reassert itself as a separate and equal branch of the federal government.
If the imperial presidency is to be ended, however, it will take more than an accountability moment.
The House Judiciary Committee and the House as a whole - which delayed the contempt vote for far too many months because of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's misguided caution about confronting the administration - must now aggressively pursue Miers and Bolten.
As American Freedom Campaign campaigns director Steve Fox correctly notes, "In order for our system of checks and balances to be effective, Congress must have oversight over the executive branch. When Bolten and Miers - with the encouragement of the President - refused to comply with the congressional subpoenas last summer, they were tacitly saying that this oversight power no longer existed. If they are not held in contempt -- and prosecuted in the courts -- our Constitution will have been defiled."
But nothing that is wrong with the Bush-Cheney administration or the federal government began with Miers and Bolten. And no fix will be complete if it stops with them.
The Judiciary Committee must hold to account the president and vice president who encouraged Miers and Bolten to disregard the rule of law.
Miers and Bolten refused to testify not as individuals but as members of an administration that has assaulted the constitutionally-defined system of checks and balances at every turn. They acted always, and in every way, at the behest of President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
It is important to hold the former counsel and the current chief of staff to account. Certainly, as People For the American Way Director of Public Policy Tanya Clay House says, "Congress has a responsibility to enforce its congressional powers, and moving forward with contempt citations is the appropriate response to this administration's stonewalling and arrogance."
But this "appropriate response" must not be seen as an end in itself.
For there to be accountability, more than a moment is required. And more than Miers and Bolten must be held to account for the high crimes and misdemeanors of an administration that has treated the Constitution and the Congress as afterthoughts.
"Members of the Bush administration have spent the last seven years pretending that the law doesn't apply to them," says House, who musters proper passion to add, "Congress has a responsibility to enforce its congressional powers, and moving forward with contempt citations is the appropriate response to this administration's stonewalling and arrogance."
John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
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