Emotions were hot on Capitol Hill on April 8 when Attorney General Eric Holder appeared before the House Judiciary Committee. At issue was a request from Congress for documents relating to the Department of Justice’s case against the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation – an organization which has been designated a terrorist group by the federal government – whose founders have been convicted and sentenced for funnelling money to the Hamas terrorist organization. The founders are asking for a re-trial, having blamed their lawyer for poor legal counsel. In February of this year, Justice disputed their claim and suggested that there is a “mountain of evidence” that proves that the Holy Land Foundation – a Muslim philanthropoy – was controlled by Hamas.
It was when Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX) addressed Attorney General Holder about the document request that the Obama administration official appeared to lose his temper. “I was fairly specific to make sure that I got the documents that the Department of Justice handed over to people convicted of supporting terrorism. They’re terrorists. We’ve given them the documents,” Gohmert said.
Texas Republican Gohmert said that his committee had sent repeated requests for the documents that had been used to prosecute the Holy Land Foundation case, but were only provided an internet link to “nearly 500 publicly available exhibits that were admitted into evidence” and instructed “to check the public access to court electronic records.” He added that the requested documents were “put on discs and sent to Illinois,” so they are easily available – “just not to members of Congress,” Gohmert said.
“Attorney General, I’ve read in the 5th Circuit opinion, about 9600 summaries of transcripts of conversations that the Justice Department had that were made available to attorneys for the terrorists,” Gohmert said. “I still do not understand why your department can provide documents to terrorists’ lawyers, and many of them to four out of eight of the terrorists, and not provide them to members of Congress.”
“Sir, I’ve read you what your department promised, and it is inadequate, and I realize that contempt is not a big deal to our attorney general, but it is important that we have proper oversight,” Gohmert said.
Feisty Holder replied, “You don’t want to go there, buddy. You don’t want to go there, okay?”
Gohmert: “I don’t want to go there?”
Gohmert: “About the contempt?”
Holder: “You should not assume that that is not a big deal to me. I think that it was inappropriate. I think it was unjust, but never think that that was not a big deal to me. Don’t ever think that.”
Gohmert: “Well I’m just looking for evidence, and normally we’re known by our fruits, and there have been no indications that it was a big deal, because your department has still not been forthcoming in producing the documents that were the subject of the contempt.”
Holder: “The documents that we were prepared to make available then, we’re prepared to make available now that would have obviated the whole need. This was all about the gun lobby and a desire to have a—
Gohmert: “Sir, we’ve been trying to get to the bottom of Fast and Furious where people died, where at least a couple hundred Mexicans died, and we can’t get the information to get to the bottom of that, so I don’t need lectures from you about contempt, because it is very difficult to deal with asking questions.”
Holder: “And I don’t need lectures from you either.”
Gohmert: “As a former judge, I’d never have asked questions of someone who’s been held in contempt. We waited ‘til the contempt was purged, and then we asked questions.”
When Gohmert later tried to pivot and turn the discussion to the
Obama administration’s support for same-sex marriage, the Texas congressman ran out of time. Holder got in the last word “Good luck with your asparagus.” The ‘asparagus’ reference harkened back to a committee hearing in June 2013 when Gohmert alleged that DOJ had failed to prevent the Boston marathon bombing. When Holder criticized the characterization, the flustered Gohmert responded: "The attorney general will not cast aspersions on my asparagus." Even while it has not been clear what Gohmert meant or what he was trying to say, the "asparagus" line has become a running joke, with Gohmert as the target.
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) also had a run-in with the acerbic attorney general. Chabot argued that because the implementation date for the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act had been written specifically into the law, the executive branch has had no authority to alter it. Chabot asked, “When Congress puts effective dates in laws, do we need to further state that the effective date cannot be waived or modified by the executive branch, or is the president required to follow the law, and also follow the dates set by Congress?" In response, Holder said that “the president has the duty, obviously, to follow the law,” but that “it would depend on the statute” and statutory interpretation of the law.
The Department of Treasury has defended its decision to delay the employer mandate, saying it was exercising its “longstanding authority to grant transition relief when implementing new legislation” under authority in the federal tax code that the Obama administration and previous administrations have used to make changes to tax law. Members of the GOP have wondered whether the Department of the Treasury has the authority to delay implementation, while alleging that the Obama administration initiated it for political purposes. Holder said the Department of Justice provided legal analysis to the administration regarding the delay, but that his agency doesn’t discuss those arguments publicly. He said Treasury reviewed the law and “determined there was a legal basis” for the change.
When Representative Chabot pressed Holder to respond whether Congress should now write into laws that the dates embedded in them are final, and not subject to changed by the executive branch, Holder responded, “Far be it from me to tell you how to do your job.”
In February, the Obama administration announced a second delay of the employer mandate for Obamacare. That mandate requires employers to offer medical insurance to their or pay a penalty, and is a foundation of Obamacare. However, the Treasury Department delayed the mandate for companies with between 50 and 99 employers after business groups pressured the administration for more time to comply with the law. The GOP has called the delays to Obamacare “lawless,” while arguing that other parts of the law, like the individual mandate, should also be delayed.
Holder also got testy with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) over suggestions that the DOJ is flouting the law in its positions on marijuana legalization and criminal sentencing.Goodlatte asked Holder whether he believes there are any limits to the prosecutorial discretion of the Obama administration. “There is a vast amount of discretion that a president has — and more specifically that an attorney general has,” Holder responded. “But that discretion has to be used in an appropriate way so that your acting consistent with the aims of the statute but at the same time making sure that you are acting in a way that is consistent with our values, consistent with the Constitution and protecting the American people."
Goodlatte criticized the Obama administration’s decision not to interfere with marijuana legalization efforts in Colorado and elsewhere, as long as the various states establish adequate regulations. Saying that this policy is tantamount to ignoring the law, Goodlatte said, “The Justice Department’s decision not to enforce the Controlled Substances Act in states whose laws violate federal law is not a valid exercise of prosecutorial discretion, but a formal department-wide policy of selective non-enforcement of an Act of Congress.”
Referring to his “Smart on Crime” initiative – in which the Justice Department has altered the charging policies with regard to mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent, low-level drug crimes – Holder said “This commonsense change will ensure that the toughest penalties are reserved for the most dangerous or violent drug traffickers.” Holder said. Goodlatte said charging decisions meant to avoid triggering “mandatory minimum” sentences would put the federal government’s attorney at odds with the law. “The attorney general’s directive, along with contradicting an act of Congress, puts his own front-line prosecutors in the unenviable position of either defying their boss or violating their oath of candor to the court,” he said.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the leading Democrat on the committee, applauded the attorney general’s move and said that almost half of all federal inmates are serving time for drug offenses.