Earlier this year the House of Representatives voted to hold Attorney General Bill Barr in civil contempt for refusing to comply with a lawful subpoena for the full, unredacted Mueller report. Since then, Barr has continued to thwart congressional oversight, and the House recently voted to hold him in criminal contempt for his failure to comply with subpoenas related to Trump’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Before the Trump presidency, the mere threat of contempt was enough to convince an administration and its officials to comply with Congress’s requests.

But as the head of the Executive Branch, Trump has consistently made a mockery of constitutional norms and congressional oversight. The actions of the Trump White House have pushed Congress to hold his Attorney General in contempt not once — but twice. 

So what does contempt of Congress mean? Why are 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 cases: 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 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 — for example, 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?

Earlier this year, the full House 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. 

The recent House vote to hold Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt has limited practical significance because the contempt citation would be enforced by the Department of Justice, the very department that Barr oversees, making a criminal prosecution unlikely. But it is a powerfully symbolic step. Barr’s reputation as a civil servant is now permanently marred by multiple contempt citations. 

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. Over and over again, Barr has chosen to protect Donald Trump rather than uphold the law. The House is fully within its rights to hold Barr in civil and criminal contempt. Contempt sends a strong message to the Trump administration that open defiance of congressional subpoenas and congressional oversight is unacceptable.