What happens when someone is held in contempt of Congress?

  • FBI Director Christopher Wray did not comply with a congressional subpoena
  • Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., wants to move to hold Wray in contempt of Congress
  • The matter would require a vote from the committee, then the full House
The U.S. Capitol is seen on Saturday, May 20, 2023, in Washington. President Joe Biden’s administration is reaching for a deal

The U.S. Capitol is seen on Saturday, May 20, 2023, in Washington. President Joe Biden’s administration is reaching for a deal with Republicans led by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy as the nation faces a deadline as soon as June 1 to raise the country’s borrowing limit, now at $31 trillion, to keep paying the nation’s bills. Republicans are demanding steep spending cuts the Democrats oppose. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

(NewsNation) — Republican House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., says he will move to hold FBI Director Christopher Wray in contempt of Congress after Wray reportedly failed to provide documents related to the committee’s investigation into President Joe Biden’s business dealings while he served as vice president.

Wray recently failed to comply with a congressional subpoena requesting all 1023 forms containing the name “Biden.”

So, what happens now?

Contempt of Congress is when someone intentionally interferes with congressional action. A Congressional Research Service report says a witness must be voted in contempt by the committee seeking testimony or information. Then it is brought to a full vote before the House or Senate, depending on the classification of the committee.

In this instance, the matter would be voted on by the House Oversight Committee and presented to the full House. The House Oversight Committee has not yet voted or formally announced a vote on Wray.

Reasons why someone can be held in contempt of Congress vary, but usually focus on whether a person flat-out refuses to appear before lawmakers for an investigation or hearing.

Under federal law, anyone who “willfully makes default, or who, having appeared, refuses to answer any question pertinent to the question under inquiry” from Congress could be considered guilty of a misdemeanor and if convicted, may be subject to fines or prison time.

According to a summary by Cornell Law School, in order for an uncooperative witness to potentially be convicted of contempt, the matter under congressional investigation must be a subject over which Congress has legislative power.

A Supreme Court ruling in Quinn v. United States determined that congressional power “cannot be used to inquire into private affairs unrelated to a valid legislative purpose” and the “power to investigate must not be confused with any of the powers of law enforcement.”

Congress adopted its contempt procedure in 1857. Congress can either refer the case to the U.S. attorney for possible indictment, or have the witness detained by the sergeant-at-arms. The latter is rarely used. Federal prosecutors have previously refused to pursue contempt matters emanating from Congress.

A noteworthy case of contempt of Congress was a key part of the Watergate scandal. When then-President Richard Nixon rejected acting in accordance with a congressional subpoena, lawmakers weighed whether to hold him in contempt. Once he resigned, the issue was moot.

Last year, Steve Bannon was convicted of contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena from the Jan. 6 committee.

The former White House strategist for former President Donald Trump, Bannon was found guilty of two misdemeanor counts for refusing to testify or hand over documents to the House of Representatives. Bannon ended up with a sentence of four months in prison and a fine of $6,500 for his two counts of contempt of Congress.

Each contempt of Congress count is reportedly punishable by one month to one year behind bars along with a fine of $100 to $100,000.

Wray had not been charged with contempt of Congress at the time of this report. A committee vote and then full House vote would be required before he could be officially charged.


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