With a new lawsuit filed this week against Attorney General Eric Holder, the House Oversight Committee and its dogged chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, has again thrust the “Fast and Furious” gunrunning scandal back into the news.
The question is why.
Issa, a Republican, insists he is simply continuing the committee’s prolonged efforts to force Holder to release more documents related to the case, which the Justice Department has refused, based on the White House assertion of executive privilege. But with less than 100 days until the elections, political calculations are also invariably at play.
“It’s one of those issues that really motivates and drives the center-right base of the Republican Party,” said Keith Appell, a GOP strategist.
Although the “Fast and Furious” investigation has yet to pierce the broader national consciousness, it has developed a loyal and devoted following among conservative activists, particularly gun enthusiasts.
The case centers on a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives investigation gone bad, in which agents lost track of 2,000 guns, many of which apparently ended up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. Conspiracy theories abound, including one floated by Issa himself at a National Rifle Association convention that the Obama administration lost the guns to later push to renew an assault-weapons ban. (The administration has not pursued such a ban.)
Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America, said his group has spoken regularly to its 300,000 members, including sending near-monthly mailers, about the case. “They might be dead if they don’t know about this,” he said.
It’s also made a name for Issa among those gun activists. “I would think his name ID is very high,” Pratt added.
When Issa announced via Twitter that his panel was filing suit against Holder, it received 700 “retweets.” In the following days, the chairman took to Twitter more than a dozen times to press the matter, with missives such as, “I believe Brian Terry's family has a right to know the truth about #FastAndFurious. Do you?” Terry was a Border Patrol agent who was killed; weapons linked to Fast and Furious were found at the scene.
Issa also landed on Fox News, with Greta Van Susteren, where he railed against the administration and said tht the timing of the suit had nothing to do with November.
“So it just happens that there is an election coming up,” he said. “But an investigation in which you are stonewalled for nearly two years is inevitably going to have an intervening election.”
Issa said he “regrettably” had to file the lawsuit. “They lied to Congress," he said. "They then covered it up for 10 months.”
White House spokesman Eric Schultz accused Issa and the GOP of pursuing a “politically motivated, taxpayer-funded election-year witch hunt” against Holder.
“House Republicans made clear long ago they were much more interested in scoring political points rather than getting to the bottom of this field-driven law-enforcement tactic,” Schultz stated via e-mail. He acknowledged that the operation, which he noted began during President George W. Bush’s tenure, was “flawed and mistaken.”
For much of early 2012, House GOP leaders were cool to a hot pursuit of Holder. But by late June, the chamber's Republicans voted to hold Holder in contempt of Congress. Seventeen Democrats joined the GOP, giving the cause some cover from accusations of pure partisanship.
Notably, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., scheduled the vote on the same day the Supreme Court was set to rule on the health care law, drowning out the contempt news.
Boehner also embraced Issa’s latest move.
“The Justice Department has left the House no choice but to take legal action so we can get to the bottom of the Fast and Furious operation that cost border agent Brian Terry his life,” he said in a statement this week.
Politically, the case has seen muddled results in limited public polling. A CNN survey around the time of the contempt vote showed that 53 percent of Americans approved of the House’s action. But, in the same survey, an even larger share of the public, 61 percent, said that congressional Republicans were mostly pursuing Holder to “gain political advantage.”
The legal case is not expected to be resolved before the fall elections. But if, as strategists believe, the only people truly paying attention are the conservative activists, the issue remains a winner for the GOP as long as it lingers.
“It’s going to resonate all the way through November,” Appell said.