The House of Representatives will likely vote Thursday on a resolution to find Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. House Republicans claim that Holder did not comply with a subpoena issued by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The subpoena was issued as part of the committee’s investigation into “Operation Fast and Furious,” a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms “gunwalking” initiative which “allowed weapons to flow to Mexican drug cartels in an effort to build a bigger case against a smuggling syndicate.” The investigation was prompted by allegations that “walked” guns were used in the fight that killed Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
So what happens if one is found in contempt of Congress? In 1857, Congress passed a law making contempt of Congress a misdemeanor with a penalty of a fine of up to “$100,000 and imprisonment for up to one year.” (Adjusting for inflation, this would be $2,485,714.29 in today’s terms , by my own
calculations on a napkin.)
However, modern cases have shown that enforcement of contempt can be tough, especially against a federal officer claiming executive privilege. The last time someone was found in contempt was in 2008, when the House voted to cite former White House Counsel Harriet Miers by a vote of 223-32 for failing to appear before Congress after having been subpoenaed in its investigation of the dismissal of certain U.S. attorneys. The case was never resolved. In fact, a penalty for contempt has not been served since 1934 when President Hoover’s commerce secretary, William McCracken, was “jailed” at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. Incidentally, there is no Capitol jail.
Regardless of punishment, Thursday’s vote will be significant for the Obama administration. It will also fuel the ongoing debate about the balance of power between the Executive Branch and Congress. Already, POPVOX users, in their letters to Congress, have used phrases ranging from “partisan warfare” and “witch hunt” to “murder gate” and “irresponsible and derelict.” As of this writing, about two-thirds of users on POPVOX support the resolution. You can read their comments and submit your own message to your congress person here.