Fast, furious follies

A desperately needed transportation bill remains stalled in the Republican-controlled House. The economy limps along as Wall Street and Main Street look for some sign that the Congress and the White House can find common ground on tax policy and deficit reduction. The public wants Washington focused on job creation.

Instead consuming the White House and congressional Republicans is a needless constitutional dust up centering on the never-ending House oversight investigation into a botched gunrunning sting. "Fast and Furious" may be the most burning issue for the denizens of conservative blogs and radio talk shows, but it barely registers on the relevance meter for most Americans.

The oversight committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, appears to have made it his life's mission to try to use F&F to damage the Obama administration. Of course, Rep. Issa is not what you would call objective. He has called the administration the "most corrupt" in history. Apparently Rep. Issa's history books do not include such genuine scandals as Teapot Dome and Watergate.

The White House took the bait, with President Obama this week asserting executive privilege to prevent the release of some Justice Department documents sought by the committee. The committee responded by voting along party lines to cite Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., from who it sought the records, for contempt of Congress. House Speaker John Boehner seems eager to bring the contempt request to a House vote. This is, after all, a presidential election year.

Operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive from 2009 to early 2011, F&F was a misguided plan to let assault weapons slip into Mexico, tracking their arrival into the hands of drug cartels and uncovering the supply network. Stunningly, the ATF lost track of about 2,000 guns, some later used in killings, including a shootout at which an American border agent was slain.

The attorney general has turned over about 7,600 documents, which documented the poor execution of the sting, but no corruption reaching into the White House. The committee also learned ATF tried several similar stings during the Bush administration, also losing track of guns in the process, though not as many.

Now Rep. Issa's committee seeks not documents about the failed program, but internal Justice Department communications that took place during the course of the Congressional investigations. The administration contends that accommodating such a fishing expedition could jeopardize criminal investigations and inhibit frank internal discussions within this and future administrations. The committee chairman has rebuffed Mr. Holder's compromise proposals to provide some of the disputed documents.

The administration should have been as accommodating as it could, and then just said no, letting the committee make the next move. Instead it handed Rep. Issa the constitutional showdown he clearly relishes.

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