On the surface, this seemed like a straightforward dispute. Steve Bannon has important insights to share about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol; he was subpoenaed to cooperate with a bipartisan investigation; and he refused. In fact, the former White House strategist said he couldn't comply with the subpoena because Donald Trump didn't want him to.
For the committee investigating the insurrectionist riot, this wasn't acceptable. Congressional subpoenas are not supposed to be optional. They are not casual invitations. The more people feel they can ignore these legal commands from federal lawmakers — at the behest of a former president who is now a private citizen — the more difficult it is for Congress to do its job.
The House passed a resolution Thursday finding Trump adviser Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress and referring to him to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution over his refusal to cooperate with an investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The resolution passed largely along party lines in a 229-202 vote. Nine Republicans voted for the resolution.
The matter will now be referred to the U.S. attorney's office in the nation's capital for possible prosecution. Whether Bannon will actually be charged is not at all clear, and such cases are quite rare.
But in the short term, the part of today's proceedings that generated the most attention was the roll call: How many House Republicans would vote for the resolution?
By contemporary political standards, the answer may seem obvious: Bannon is a Republican; he's shielding information at the behest of a former Republican president; that same former Republican president bears responsibility for the attack on the Capitol; and so it stood to reason that Republican House members, the vast majority of whom want to stay on Donald Trump's good side, would vote "no" today.
By historical standards, the answer wasn't necessarily obvious. As we discussed the other day, the last time the Justice Department pursued a criminal case like this one was nearly four decades ago, when a Reagan administration official refused to testify to Congress about EPA superfund sites. When the House voted that year on contempt of Congress, the vote was 413 to zero.
Similarly, as historian Kevin Kruse noted this week, "During Watergate, most Republicans — whatever their politics, whatever they thought of the president — supported efforts to secure evidence and witness testimony. They believed defending their branch of government was more important than defending their party's leader."
Those days are long gone. GOP politics has changed spectacularly since those earlier controversies.
Indeed, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested yesterday that he doesn't even consider the Jan. 6 committee that issued the subpoena to be a "real" committee. Soon after, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise formally urged GOP members to oppose the resolution.
All but nine followed the Republican leadership's directive:
- Liz Cheney of Wyoming
- Adam Kinzinger of Illinois
- Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio
- Peter Meijer of Michigan
- Fred Upton of Michigan
- Nancy Mace of South Carolina
- John Katko of New York
- Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania
- Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington
On the one hand, nine is an embarrassingly low number. On the other hand, given the state of Republican politics in 2021, nine is also a larger number than I expected.
Stepping back, the Bannon subpoena is part of a critically important exercise: Congress is trying to get answers about an attack on our democracy. The vast majority of the House GOP today suggested that it's largely indifferent to those answers.