The president’s decision to withhold the documents, his first use of executive privilege, and the House panel’s anticipated contempt citation quickly intensified a long-simmering feud
Executive privilege has been invoked throughout U.S. history by presidential administrations to preserve the confidentiality of information in the face of legislative inquiries. The privilege is qualified, not absolute, and can be overturned in courts. But disputes over access to information rarely reach the courts and are most often resolved through political negotiations, according to the Congressional Research Service.
In response, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who led Wednesday’s hearing to review the contempt charges, said he learned of Obama’s decision early Wednesday and believes the move “falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings.”
If the House committee cites Holder for criminal contempt, it would open a process that would require House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to schedule a floor vote. If passed by the full House, the matter would then move to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald C. Machen Jr., who is an employee of the Justice Department.
Holding an Executive Branch official in criminal contempt is rare, having occurred roughly a dozen times in the last 40 years. Usually, administration officials have cited executive privilege in refusing to share information, but eventually turn over requested documents before congressional committees reach the final stages of contempt proceedings, according to the CRS.
The attorney general attempted to stave off Wednesday's vote by meeting late Tuesday with leaders of the House oversight and Senate Judiciary committees to strike a deal that would have Justice hand over requested documents in exchange for the House panel dropping its plans to vote on contempt charges. But Issa declined the offer.
“If the Justice Department had delivered the documents they freely admitted they could have delivered, we wouldn't be here today,” he said at the start of Wednesday's hearing.