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Is “Contempt of Congress” Punishable?

By The Policy Circle Team

Earlier this month, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler threatened to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt for refusing to comply with a subpoena Barr received from Congress to provide them with special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, free of all redactions, on Russian interference in the 2016 election. (CNN)

What is Contempt of Congress?   “Contempt of Congress is defined in statute, 2 U.S.C.A. § 192, enacted in 1938, which states that any person who is summoned before Congress who ‘willfully makes default, or who, having appeared, refuses to answer any question pertinent to the question under inquiry’ shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a maximum $1,000 fine and 12 month imprisonment.”  (Cornell Law School)

Congress has a statute, but does it really have the power?  Yes. The U.S. Supreme Court “has repeatedly upheld Congress has a right to compel people to comply with its oversight efforts.”  (LA Times)

Have anyone else ever been found in Contempt of Congress?  Yes. According to the Congressional Research Service, the first Contempt of Congress was issued in 1795 and since 1980 nearly 30 people have been found in contempt including another Attorney General, Eric Holder.  

What Happens if someone is found in Contempt?

“1) They [Congress} can tell the House or Senate sergeant at arms to detain or imprison the person in contempt until he or she honors congressional demands. This is called “inherent contempt.” But it’s super rare and hasn’t happened in modern times. 

2) Congress can certify a contempt citation to the executive branch — headed by the President — to try to get the person criminally prosecuted. 

3) Congress can ask the judicial branch to enforce a congressional subpoena. In other words, Congress can seek a federal court’s civil judgment saying the person is legally obligated to comply with the subpoena.” (CNN)

What is this about the Capitol Prison?  While “Contempt of Congress is a real thing, there is no Capitol Prison. “Katherine Scott, associate historian in the U.S. Senate Historical Office, said the story of a jail in the basement of the Capitol probably persists because of a vault under the Capitol Crypt. The vault was to serve as the tomb for the first president.  But by the time the crypt was completed, Washington’s descendants wanted him to remain in his Mount Vernon tomb.”  Possibly since the vault is gated it makes for an interesting story to call it a prison, however it’s not and the purpose of the gate is to keep secure the “catafalque, which is the platform used to support coffins for officials who lie in state”. (USA Today)

For more information on Congress, this Policy Brief on US House of Representatives helps explain how our this branch of government works.


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