Contempt of Congress

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Contempt of Congress is when an individual intentionally interferes with Congressional action. Congress has the power to restrain such individuals from interfering with its actions. It is a form of contempt, similar to contempt of court.

Congress’s ability to hold individuals in contempt who interfere with its duties is considered an implied power of the legislature. The U.S. Supreme Court summarized this principle in the 1917 case Marshall v. Gordon, stating, “in virtue of the grant of legislative authority, there would be a power implied to deal with contempt insofar as that authority was necessary to preserve and carry out the legislative authority given.” That is, although the Federal Constitution does not explicitly provide for Congressional power to hold individuals in contempt, such power is considered implied because without it, Congress could not effectively carry out its duties. 

Historically, Congress relied on British Parliamentary precedent and generally found individuals to be in contempt for attempting to bribe Congressmen or for refusing to answer Congressional inquiries. For example, in 1795, Congress held Robert Randall in contempt, referencing British Parliamentary practice, and held him in custody for about a week for attempting to bribe several representatives to vote to extinguish Indian land titles. 

Currently, actions for which individuals can be held in contempt of Congress are largely a matter of statutory law and focus mostly on when individuals refuse to appear or give testimony for a Congressional investigation or hearing. The U.S. Supreme Court in Watkins v. United States confirmed Congressional power to issue subpoenas, stating that all citizens have a duty to “cooperate with the Congress in its efforts to obtain the facts needed for intelligent legislative action,” and that they must “respond to subpoenas [and] testify.” Federal law penalizes individuals who refuse to respond to Congressional inquiries, as 2 U.S.C. § 192 states that any person who is summoned before Congress who "willfully makes default, or who, having appeared, refuses to answer any question pertinent to the question under inquiry" shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a maximum $1,000 fine and 12 months’ imprisonment. 

The matter under Congressional investigation, however, must be a subject over which Congress has legislative power before an uncooperative witness may be convicted of contempt. The U.S. Supreme Court in Quinn v. United States also recognized certain limitations on Congressional power to investigate and summon individuals, namely, that it “cannot be used to inquire into private affairs unrelated to a valid legislative purpose. Nor does it extend to an area in which Congress is forbidden to legislate. Similarly, the power to investigate must not be confused with any of the powers of law enforcement; those powers are assigned under our Constitution to the Executive and the Judiciary. Still further limitations on the power to investigate are found in the specific individual guarantees of the Bill of Rights, such as the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination which is in issue here.”

One prominent example of contempt of congress occurred during the Watergate scandal. In 1974, the Congressional Judiciary Committee issued two subpoenas for the tapes of the conversations with then-President Nixon to investigate the Watergate scandal. President Nixon refused, and Congress considered whether to hold him in contempt for refusing to comply with their subpoena during his impeachment debate. The issue was ultimately rendered moot because he resigned, however. More recently, in October of 2021, the January 6th House Committee issued subpoenas to investigate the January 6th riot. Several prominent political figures and advisors have been subpoenaed, with the media reporting that some of these individuals face the possibility of being held in contempt of Congress if they refuse to comply with the subpoena.

[Last updated in October of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]