- Jul 2013
- Nashville, TN
There are avenues...
Individuals who refuse to cooperate with a Congressional investigation, either by refusing to testify or withholding subpoenaed documents, may be cited for contempt of Congress. Learn about the process and penalties for contempt of Congress, and more, at FindLaw's Legal System section.
After securing a citation, there are three avenues for Congress to enforce its resolution and ultimately seek a resolution:
Criminal Contempt of Congress
The authority of Congress to cite an individual with criminal contempt is found in Title 2, Section 192 of the U.S. Code. It states that anyone summoned by either house of Congress "to give testimony or to produce papers" regarding any matter of inquiry who "willfully makes default" or "refuses to answer any questions pertinent to the question under inquiry" has committed contempt of Congress.
Penalties for violations (a misdemeanor) include a fine of up to $1,000 and a jail term of one to 12 months, which requires prosecution by the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia. This means a contempt citation may be a purely symbolic gesture if the DOJ or U.S. Attorney decides not to prosecute. In the case of EPA Administrator Gorsuch, President Reagan -- head of the executive branch -- had declared those documents off limits due to executive privilege.
Congress Contempt Charges: Civil
If the DOJ or U.S. Attorney's Office refuses to prosecute a case where an individual has been cited for contempt of Congress, lawmakers may pursue a civil suit in federal court. Generally, these actions claim that the members of Congress requesting testimony or documents were denied the ability to exercise their constitutional duties. The court then decides whether the individual cited for contempt of Congress must comply with the congressional subpoena.
The relevant statute (Title 2, Section 288 of the U.S. Code) specifically gives the Senate the power to bring a lawsuit for contempt of Congress. However, federal courts have held that this also applies to House committees seeking enforcement of subpoenas.
Inherent Contempt Power of Congress
The third, and least exercised, option is referred to as the inherent contempt power of Congress. This isn't found in statutory or constitutional language but rather is inferred by the courts as a function of Congress's legislative powers. The last time this was exercised was in the 1930s, but this was seen more as a way to coerce compliance than as a means of punishment.
The offender, after being cited for contempt of Congress, is tried on the floor of the chamber of Congress invoking the power. If a majority affirms the contempt charge, they may instruct the Sergeant at Arms to arrest the offender and detain them until they comply with the subpoena or until the end of the session. Given the extraordinary nature of congressional detention and its lack of constitutional clarity, it's often seen as a last-ditch -- and unlikely-- effort.