What does ‘contempt of Congress’ really mean?

I have to acknowledge that I do not have a clue what lawmakers are going to do to enforce a recommended contempt of Congress citation against Attorney General William Barr.

The House Judiciary Committee issued the recommendation this week; the full House will have to vote on it. What happens then?

A contempt of Congress citation doesn’t have the same legal impact as a contempt of court citation. If someone defies a judge or doesn’t show up to, say, testify in a court proceeding, there are legal remedies at the court’s disposal. The judge can issue a warrant for the arrest of that individual.

What can Congress do to enforce what is in effect a political argument? Does it have the authority to arrest the attorney general? Does it go to court to settle it once and for all?

My sense is that the House Judiciary Committee is setting the table for a monstrous political battle royale between the legislative and executive branches of government. Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler is stone-faced and grim as he discusses this matter. He accuses Barr — likely at Donald Trump’s insistence — of usurping Congress’s constitutional authority to conduct oversight of the executive branch.

Nadler is having none of that. But . . . what about his Republican colleagues? They appear ready to cede their own power to the chief executive, who is instructing his White House staff to ignore every single demand placed on them by Congress.

A contempt of Congress citation could turn into a battle for the soul of our government. Or, as it did in 2012 when congressional Republicans cited AG Eric Holder for contempt over the “fast and furious” gun-sale program, it could sputter and fizzle into oblivion.

My sense is that Jerrold Nadler — with the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — is getting ready to rumble.

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