Attorney General Bill Barr refused to comply with a congressional subpoena and ignored a scheduled hearing at which he was supposed to deliver sworn testimony. In effect, he dared lawmakers to do something about his deliberate stonewalling.
So, they did.
The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to advance a measure that would hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress after President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege over special counsel Robert Mueller’s unredacted report.
Moving to hold Barr in contempt for refusing to comply with the committee’s subpoena for the full, unredacted report and its underlying evidence is “not a step we take lightly,” Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said Wednesday, but rather the “culmination of nearly three months of requests, discussions and negotiations with the Department of Justice.”
The final vote in the Democratic-led Judiciary Committee was 24 to 16. The final tally, as expected, fell along party lines.
The contempt resolution will now go to the House floor for a vote from the whole chamber. That vote has not yet been scheduled, but barring a dramatic shift on the part of the attorney general, it’s likely to pass.
If so, it’s not a measure that would go to the Senate for consideration. Rather, if a contempt resolution passes the House, that would be the final legislative step: it would mean Barr was held in contempt of the House.
What happens after that gets a little tricky.
The New York Times ran a helpful Q&A earlier today:
What is the punishment for contempt of Congress?
On paper, defying a congressional subpoena for testimony or documents is a misdemeanor crime, punishable by one to 12 months in jail. But in practice, this law is generally toothless in disputes between Congress and the executive branch. Invoking prosecutorial discretion, the Justice Department can decline to charge an official who defies a subpoena at the president’s direction.
Can Congress enforce a contempt citation on its own?
In theory, yes, but this is outdated. Historically, Congress has exercised “inherent contempt” authority to detain recalcitrant witnesses until the end of its session. But Congress has not tried to use that authority since 1935.
While much of the ongoing controversies surrounding the White House’s resistance to oversight are likely to be litigated in the courts, this one probably won’t be.
Barr is on track to be the second attorney general to be held in contempt. The first was Eric Holder, whom House Republicans targeted in 2012.