The full House of Representatives passed a civil contempt resolution against Attorney General William Barr and other administration officials for failing to comply with congressional subpoenas Tuesday, on vote of 229-191. The vote came a day after House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler said his committee won’t pursue a criminal contempt citation against Barr.
Today’s vote is essentially a procedural green light that allows Nadler to take future action to get the unredacted report of special counsel Robert Mueller — but it’s more sweeping than his fight alone. With today’s vote, the House has now authorized all its committees to pursue and enforce civil contempt of Congress citations for Barr, former White House counsel Don McGahn, and other Trump administration officials if they continue to their blanket refusal of lawmakers’ subpoenas.
In other words, even though Nadler announced on Monday that he’ll hold off on taking Barr to court after the two reached a deal for Congress to see more of the Mueller report, he and other committee chairs will now have the House’s blessing to take Trump administration officials to court in the future. And they won’t have to get the authorization of the full House to do it each time. (However, each contempt request would also have to get approval from the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group.)
Today’s contempt vote comes alongside a number of court actions Democrats have already taken against the administration to enforce their subpoenas, with some success.
The vote also comes amid a relatively small — but growing — push from some Democratic lawmakers to open an impeachment inquiry, which so far does not include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
That push got some added momentum when Mueller gave his first public statement last week about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, reiterating that Congress is the body that should determine whether Trump obstructed justice and decide whether to charge him.
Still, with Pelosi opposing any moves toward impeachment unless there is something so explosive that Senate Republicans will sign on, Democrats are continuing to mount investigations into the Trump administration.
The contempt vote is the mechanism that allows Democrats in Congress to pursue more legal action against the Trump administration. This will help them enforce subpoenas the administration has so far ignored. Congress also has another contempt power it’s not using: inherent contempt, which allows Congress to either jail or fine administration officials.
Democrats have a number of tools they can use; passing today’s contempt resolution is essentially the first step in this process.
How contempt of Congress works, briefly explained
Contempt of Congress citations are a tool the House or Senate can use in cases where their subpoena requests are repeatedly denied. Congress is essentially arguing that the executive branch is stonewalling and getting in the way of their ability to conduct their constitutionally obligated oversight.
But it’s crucial to remember that a congressional contempt citation is just Congress making another request to the executive branch — if a more strongly worded one. Actually getting the executive branch to comply can be difficult, precisely because the executive branch is the one with the power to prosecute the individual who isn’t complying with the subpoena request.
Here’s how Congressional Research Service legislative attorney Todd Garvey explained it in a recent summary:
First, the criminal contempt statute permits a single house of Congress to certify a contempt citation to the executive branch for the criminal prosecution of an individual who has willfully refused to comply with a committee subpoena. Once the contempt citation is received, any prosecution lies within the control of the executive branch.
Here’s how contempt of Congress resolutions work on a practical level: Once the full House passes a contempt resolution, Pelosi as House speaker could issue a citation for Barr or other Trump administration officials to be held in contempt. She’d pass that citation along to the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia or the Justice Department. Either the US attorney or the DOJ will likely say they don’t plan to move forward with prosecuting Barr or the other officials.
That’s why Democrats also have to take a second step to enforce their subpoenas: passing a resolution authorizing Congress to go to court to enforce them. This is the very resolution they’re passing today, giving the committees the legal authority to move ahead with criminal contempt citations when they need to — rather than coming back and asking the full House to grant a contempt citation each time.
Democrats have had some legal success in recent weeks. Two federal judges have sided with Congress in separate cases, telling the Trump administration to comply with subpoenas from the House Oversight and Financial Services committees.
With the Mueller report back in the spotlight, Democrats are making it a big focus for now. But they want to keep their options open.