WASHINGTON—Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi put an end on May 8 to the prospect of House Democrats using an obscure congressional power known as “inherent contempt” to jail Attorney General William Barr, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and other Trump administration officials who defy subpoenas to testify or provide documents.
Asked by Washington Post reporter Robert Costa if she favors holding Mnuchin in contempt and jailing him and other officials in the Capitol for refusing to give Congress President Donald Trump’s tax returns, Pelosi chuckled, then said:
“We do have a little jail down in the basement of the Capitol, but, if we were arresting all of the people in the administration, we would have an over-crowded jail situation. And I’m not for that.”
Pelosi was referring to Mnuchin’s refusal on Trump’s tax returns as well as Barr declining to give Congress an unredacted copy of special counsel Robert Mueller’s recent report that found no evidence of collusion by any American, including Trump, with Russians to influence the 2016 election.
The Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) are expected to hold Barr in contempt on May 9. On May 8, the committee decided on a straight party line ballot to schedule the contempt vote.
Pelosi’s comment was delivered amid laughter, but the issue behind her observation is serious. As reported on May 2 by The Epoch Times, House Democrats were seriously discussing using the inherent contempt power to force recalcitrant Trump officials to testify and turn over documents sought by congressional panels.
The Democrats’ threats reportedly came in closed meetings April 30 and May 1, during which Nadler, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), and House Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) cited the inherent contempt power.
Nobody has been jailed using inherent contempt, however, since the 1930s, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Under inherent contempt, both the Senate and the House of Representatives have the authority as an implied legislative prerogative under the Constitution and independent of the executive branch to impose fines, as well as to arrest and jail individuals who defy subpoenas to testify or produce evidence.
The process requires a majority vote of either chamber directing the sergeant-at-arms to order the U.S. Capitol Police to locate, arrest, and detain the individual, who then can be held in confinement until he or she complies with the subpoena.