Author & Speaker

Slow Motion Showdown, Part Deux

So the topic is the flaccid congressional response when the White House thumbed its nose at a congressional subpoena for documents about the firing of U.S. Attorneys in 2006. My interest is in episodes when Congress did not limply file a lawsuit to assert its rights, secure in the knowledge that no self-respecting court would ever actually rule on such a plain political question.
It turns out that there were more such instances than I knew about.
In 1795, its sixth year of existence, the House of Representatives arrested Robert Randall and Charles Whitney for trying to bribe congressmen. Whitney was held in custody for a week; Randall for two.
In the early days of Reconstruction, after the Civil War, the House got tough again. In 1870, it jailed Patrick Wood for three months for assaulting a congressman.
The House’s most notorious muscle-flexing came two years earlier. The drive to impeach and remove President Andrew Johnson had just fallen one vote short in the Senate.
Sniffing corruption in the narrow escape, a House committee investigated. One trail led to Charles Woolley, a Cincinnati lawyer who was supposed to have information about the bribing of senators.
Woolley gave squirrelly testimony before the investigating committee, sometimes asserting privileges and other times refusing to answer. Then he delivered a doctor’s affidavit that he was too sick to testify further. THEN he hopped the next train to New York City.
When Woolley next was in Washington, his number was up. The impetuous Rep. Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts dispatched the House Sergeant-at-arms to seize the lawyer. The House cited Woolley for contempt and directed that he be detained until he purged his contempt. (Rather a graphic image, that.)
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Congressman Ben Butler, a face that could prosper only in the pre-video age
The Sergeant-at-arms confined Woolley in the House Foreign Affairs Committee room, bringing in a bed and fetching meals from the Capitol restaurant.
Woolley’s wife and daughter visited, as did a range of Democratic politicians, while pro-Johnson newspapers proclaimed him a martyr. After a while, Woolley was moved to the studio in the Capitol basement then being used by Miss Vinnie Ream, a precocious teenage sculptor who had won public sculpture commissions through her talent and her ability to captivate much older politicos like Rep. Thad Stevens and Senator Edmund G. Ross. But that’s another story.
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Sculptor Vinnie Ream, with her bust of Lincoln
After seventeen days, Woolley won his freedom by promising to testify. His testimony did not help the investigation very much, but the House had made its point, sort of.
In 1935, it was the Senate’s turn. Lawyer William P. McCracken. McCracken allowed clients to remove and destroy materials in his files before he responded to a Senate committee’s subpoena.
The Senate cited McCracken for contempt and detained him. When he challenged the Senate’s power to do so, the Supreme Court (in an opinion by Louis Brandeis) upheld Congress.
Despite these precedents, Speaker Pelosi surely will not send the Sergeant-at-arms to seize Joshua Bolten and Harriett Miers and sling them into a committee room until they comply with the subpoenas. A judicious concern for the separation of powers, along with Congress’ low self-esteem and near-total absence of mojo, will foreclose such bold steps.
What a shame.