Politics trumps governance

Politics trumps governance

June 22nd, 2012 in Opinion Times

There's nothing wrong with a bit of healthy skirmishing between a Congressional committee and the White House over the manner in which a presidential administration conducts business. Indeed, such confrontations are an affirmation of the checks and balances that provide useful oversight of the executive branch of government by the legislative branch. When the relationship turns sour, however, and political partisanship rather than good governance becomes paramount, the nation is ill-served.

That's certainly the case in the on-going clash between the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the administration over an admittedly bungled sting undertaken by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Forearms and Explosives. The confrontation has escalated to the point where the committee has voted to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt and President Barack Obama has invoked executive privilege to decline to turn over documents demanded by the committee. Such high-stakes actions are unnecessary and disruptive.

The contempt citation and the invoking of executive privilege were prompted by an investigation into Operation Fast and Furious, started during the George W. Bush administration. In that operation, federal officials purposely allowed illegal traffic in guns to Mexico to take place. The goal was to track the weapons from low-level purchasers into the hands of drug cartel operatives and then to act on that information to reduce cross-border drug traffic and the violence that accompanies it. The sting failed.

Many of the guns allowed across the border, in fact, did end up in cartel hands, but agency officials lost track of them. Eventually, two of the weapons turned up at the scene where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed. By any measure, the government's role in the transfer of weapons that may have been used in the murder of a U.S. agent is worthy of investigation. That's a proper role for the House committee.

What's not proper is turning that investigation into an unnecessary confrontation between the House committee and Holder, the nation's top law enforcement officer. At issue are documents relating to Fast and Furious. The committee, as is its right, demanded documents from the government. Holder and the administration complied, producing more than 7,500 documents related to the operation and its aftermath. That didn't satisfy committee chairman Dan Issa, long a vocal White House opponent, and his Republican colleagues. They demanded more.

Holder and the administration did not comply. They refused, telling the committee that handing over more documents would jeopardize on-going criminal investigations and unnecessarily expose the Justice Department's internal processes to public scrutiny. Those points certainly are valid.

Such disputes between the legislative and executive branches occur occasionally. Usually, the two sides negotiate and discuss the problems involved in search of the common ground that will allow an agreeable resolution of the issues that separate them. Not this time. Confrontation -- not conversation -- became the order of the day. The Republican desire to turn Fast and Furious into a highly public and poisonous issue in a presidential election year prevailed over political decorum.

That's turned what should have been a rather ordinary event involving two branches of government into a sideshow. Neither a contempt citation -- which came on a party line vote -- nor the use of executive privilege should be necessary in cases of this type. Reasonable discussion and negotiation should be employed to work out an arrangement that satisfies both the legislative and executive branches. That's usually done -- except in instances like the Fast and Furious investigation where one side chooses to ignore its duty to provide good governance and instead seizes the chance to score partisan political points at the expense of the other.