House Democrats Are Prepared to Hold William Barr in Contempt of Congress. What Does That Mean?
House Democrats are ready to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress after the Department of Justice failed to deliver an unredacted copy of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
Jerrod Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has set a Wednesday vote for lawmakers to hold Barr in contempt of Congress, saying the Attorney General’s failure to comply with a subpoena calling for the full, unredacted Mueller report left the Committee with “no choice but to initiate contempt proceedings.” Barr has objected to releasing the full report over rules that prevent him from giving material related to grand jury testimony to Congress. While the Justice Department has offered to make available a less redacted version to Congress than the one already made public, Democrats have argued that they should be allowed to see the full report.
As a growing number of Democrats have come out against Barr’s handling of the Mueller report, the party is now taking steps to charge the Attorney General. Here’s what to know about contempt of Congress and how it works.
How do lawmakers hold someone in contempt of Congress?
The House or Senate can draw up contempt of Congress citations in instances where their subpoenas are denied. A statute on the criminal contempt of Congress holds that anyone who “willfully” fails to comply with a subpoena is committing a misdemeanor, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.
Upon issuing the citation, the power to prosecute the individual goes to the executive branch, the report says. Congress can alternatively file a civil suit to enforce a subpoena.
A vote to hold Barr in contempt of Congress is likely to succeed on the floor, since Democrats control the lower chamber. The case would then be sent to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia or the Department of Justice to pursue criminal charges. But it is unlikely that a federal prosecutor would bring charges against their own boss, a former member of a House counsel office tells TIME.
Why do Democrats want to hold Barr in contempt?
The move by Democrats to hold Barr in contempt of Congress marks the first time they have set out to punish an official with the Trump Administration for failing to comply with subpoena requests.
On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee will vote to hold Barr in contempt over his refusal to turn over an unredacted version of the Mueller report. Democrats argue that a full copy of the report will assist them in their push for an investigation into whether Trump abused the powers of his office.
“Access to these materials is essential to the Committee’s ability to effectively investigate possible misconduct, and consider appropriate legislative, oversight, or other constitutionally warranted responses,” the contempt report states. “Attorney General Barr’s refusal to comply with the Committee’s subpoena or to engage in a meaningful accommodations process therefore continues to thwart the Committee’s ability to fulfill its responsibilities.”
What are the consequences of being held in contempt?
Under the contempt of Congress statute, a person found guilty of “willfully” failing to comply with a subpoena can be punished with imprisonment for up to one year and a maximum $1,000 fine.
But it is unlikely that Barr will face criminal charges because neither a U.S. attorney nor the Department of Justice are expected to go forward in prosecuting the Attorney General, according to veterans of congressional investigations. A former House attorney tells TIME that failing criminal prosecution, Congress is likely to try to enforce the subpoena through a civil suit. What will happen next is unclear.
“They may have to get the House to vote on contempt, file this case as well, and then we will see what happens,” the attorney says. “The political pressure may be such because every poll we’ve seen shows the public is tremendously in favor of transparency.” A PBS News Hour/NPR/Marist poll found in March that about three-quarters of people said the full report should be released.
In the past, the House has also used the rarely invoked “inherent contempt” method. Lawmakers technically have the power to arrest and detain people who refuse to comply with subpoena requests, according to the Congressional Research Service. It’s an option that gives broader powers than the criminal contempt statute because it can also be used in response to actions that are seen as “obstructing” Congress’s legislative power.
Lawmakers have largely abandoned the practice of using the “inherent contempt” option since the 1930s, but they still have the right to detain a person in an effort to speed up their access to the requested information.
When has this happened before?
Only one sitting Attorney General has been held in contempt of Congress. A Republican-controlled House held Attorney General Eric Holder, who served during the Obama Administration, in contempt of Congress in 2012 over his failure to provide documents for a congressional inquiry into an operation called “Fast and Furious,” a failed program run by an Arizona division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives which allowed guns to be sold to Mexican drug gang members.
Obama declined to prosecute Holder, citing executive privilege.
With reporting from Alana Abramson