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Wonkology: In Contempt of Congress

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May 8, 2014


Congress can hold a person in contempt for deliberately obstructing the work of Congress or one of its committees.

A Long History of Contempt

According to the Congressional Research Service, the US Supreme Court cemented Congress's inherent authority to investigate and enforce informational demands after the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s, although the power was declared valid as early as 1821 to protect the reputation of Congress.

It only takes a vote by one chamber of Congress to hold a person in contempt. The contempt resolution is not signed by the President. Under an antiquated provision, Congress could potentially bring an individual before the full House or Senate, try them before the full body, and subsequently imprison them until the adjournment of that congressional session. The last Capitol jail, where Congress could have imprisoned someone under this method, was torn down in 1929 to build the Supreme Court building.

How Does it Work Today?

Contemporary Congresses pursue criminal or civil contempt actions. For example, if and when an individual fails to comply with a subpoena issued by a committee, the committee may forward a resolution of contempt to the full body. A majority vote in the chamber results in the target being held in contempt of Congress. If the person is found in criminal contempt, Congress instructs the Justice Department to prosecute, which naturally leads to a conflict of powers between Congress and the Executive.

How Often is It Used?

Prosecution of a contempt resolution is exceedingly rare, with only a handful of examples in recent decades. The last successful prosecution was against former Assistant EPA Administrator Rita Lavelle in 1983. Instead, the threat of being held in contempt can act as leverage against the Executive Branch to comply with Congress's demands. In June 2012, the House voted to declare US Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt of Congress for his alleged role in Operation Fast and Furious. His own Justice Department naturally refused to prosecute, and as a result, the House passed a resolution allowing for the filing of a civil enforcement action against him in US District Court.

This week, the House is expected to vote on a resolution declaring Lois Lerner, the ex-IRS official at the center of the IRS targeting scandal, in contempt of Congress. If she were to be convicted, she faces up to a $100,000 fine and one year in prison.

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