The House of Representatives recently voted to hold Attorney General Bill Barr in civil contempt for refusing to comply with a lawful subpoena for the full unredacted Mueller report.

Before Trump, the mere threat of contempt was enough to convince an administration to comply with Congress’s requests, or at least negotiate a compromise between branches.

But as the head of the Executive Branch, Trump has consistently made a mockery of constitutional norms, grabbing more power for himself and tipping the scales in his favor. He and his allies in his administration (and yes, in Congress, too) have put us in the midst of a full-blown constitutional crisis.

So what does contempt of Congress mean? Why is contempt and congressional oversight so important? Below, we take you through the ins and outs of contempt and why exercising congressional authority is one of the best ways to begin holding this corrupt administration accountable.

What is contempt of Congress?

When someone obstructs Congress from doing its job, Congress can hold that person in “contempt.” This usually happens when someone refuses to testify or provide documents that were subpoenaed during a congressional investigation. And it’s a big deal only reserved for the most egregious examples: Congress has found fewer than 30 people in contempt since 1980.

In our constitutionally-based system, Congress is a coequal branch of government, with its own powers and duties — duties which Trump and his administration have routinely ignored or stonewalled. The purpose of contempt is to force compliance, punish the individual, and remove the obstruction.

How does Congress hold someone in contempt?

The contempt process can start in either the House or the Senate. Unlike legislation, it only takes one of the chambers to make and enforce a contempt citation. Once a contempt citation is issued, the full body — in this case, the House — debates and then votes on the matter. A majority vote (218 votes) is all that’s needed for it to pass.

There are three methods of enforcing contempt:

  • Civil Contempt: The House can ask a federal court to issue a civil judgment enforcing the congressional subpoena — in this case, requiring Barr to produce the unredacted Mueller report.
  • Criminal Contempt: Congress can send the case to the Executive Branch by certifying a contempt citation to try to begin a criminal prosecution. Criminal contempt carries a fine of up to $10,000 and one year in jail.
  • Inherent Contempt: Congress has the inherent power to imprison someone. Congress could tell the House or Senate sergeant at arms to detain someone found in contempt, until he complies with congressional demands or a new Congress is seated.

What does this mean for Barr and the Trump administration?

The full House recently voted to hold Barr in civil contempt, giving the House Judiciary Committee broader powers to retrieve information and documents that Barr has withheld, including the unredacted Mueller report. It also fast tracks all House Committees’ ability to go to court to resolve future disputes.

House Democrats did not pursue criminal contempt because a criminal contempt procedure is handled by federal prosecutors, who ultimately answer to the Attorney General and the President, so a criminal prosecution would be unlikely. Inherent contempt, while once fairly common, hasn’t been used since 1935, when William MacCracken, a former member of President Herbert Hoover’s administration, was arrested and held under a warrant after he declined to appear before the Senate.

It is illegal to obstruct Congress’s constitutional duty to pass laws, conduct investigations, and oversee the Executive Branch. The House was fully within their rights to hold Barr in civil contempt — and it sent a strong message to the Trump administration that open defiance of congressional subpoenas and congressional oversight is unacceptable.

This is a critical moment for our democracy.

Holding Barr in civil contempt was a crucial first step in Congress exercising their constitutionally-mandated oversight.

But we can’t stop there. An impeachment inquiry is now the only viable option to fully expose the extent of Trump and his administration’s corruption and hold them accountable for the numerous crimes that Mueller detailed in his report.

Tell your representative to support opening an immediate impeachment inquiry.