The issue that spurred the committee's vote is Holder's unwillingness to release documents and internal communications at the Department of Justice regarding the operation known as "Fast and Furious." That operation, run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed guns bought in the United States to cross into Mexico. The idea was to nail straw purchasers of weapons in United States and also high-level members of Mexican drug gangs that obtained the weapons.
According to the 2011 report Fueling Cartel Violence prepared for Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), hundreds of firearms made their way into the arsenals of three of the largest drug cartels: Sinaloa, El Teo and La Familia.
Mexican authorities have claimed that as many as 150 people have been killed by these firearms in an ongoing war that has taken the lives of more than 50,000 people since 2006. Some 2,000-plus firearms are said to have made their way into Mexico as a result of "Fast and Furious." A U.S. Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was also killed with one of the weapons, an AK47-style firearm. Among the weapons allowed to leave the states were .50 caliber sniper rifles that may have made the difference in battles between cartel members and Mexican police.
While this is the first time an attorney general has faced a congressional contempt citation, under George W. Bush, White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten were held in contempt of Congress. Bush invoked executive privilege in their cases. Congress moved because Miers and Bolten would not cooperate in its investigation that the Justice Department was being used for political ends and that many U.S. attorneys had been fired for partisan reasons because they hadn't been viewed as loyal team players dedicated to carrying out the White House agenda.
While House Republicans have sought to make election-year hay out of the "Fast and Furious" mess, their concern about powerful weapons getting into the hands of drug cartels is limited.
The ATF has reported that there are 6,700 holders of Federal Firearms Licenses operating in the Southwest border areas of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. But Republicans attached a rider to the 2013 fiscal-year budget that would prohibit spending by the ATF to enforce a rule requiring FFLs to report multiple sales of rifles. This would provide the bureau with enhanced ability to track possible straw purchases, one of the key ways guns make their way into Mexico. But the rider was attached by those who view the ATF move a measure to control legitimate gun sales.
2:10 PM PT: Clarification: Although House committees have voted for contempt citations against previous attorneys general, these have not been been brought to a vote in the House chambers.
“It’s an election-year tactic intended to distract attention—and, as a result—has deflected critical resources from fulfilling what remains my top priority at the Department of Justice: Protecting the American people.”