News Intelligence Analysis






What are the consequences of being cited in contempt of Congress?
Who decides who is in contempt and what the penalties will be?

Ilona Nickels
C-SPAN Resident Congressional Scholar

Bellingham, WA - 5/3/00



Contempt of Congress is initiated by a resolution reported from the affected congressional committee which can cite any individual for contempt. The resolution must then be adopted by the House or Senate. If the relevant chamber adopts the contempt resolution recommended by one of its committees, the matter is referred to a U.S. Attorney for prosecution. The U.S. Attorney may call in a grand jury to decide whether or not to indict and prosecute. If prosecuted by the courts and found guilty of contempt, the punishment is presently set at up to one year in prison and/or up to $1,000 in fines.

The last high-ranking federal official to be held in contempt was Anne Gorsuch, then administrator of the EPA, in 1982. The House voted the citation for her refusal to provide requested documents concerning the Superfund to the Energy and Commerce Committee then chaired by Rep. John Dingell (D-MI). Prosecution of her case was halted after the Reagan White House negotiated an agreement to allow access to the papers.

Contempt resolutions have most often been issued in two categories: (1) for reasons of refusing to testify or failing to provide Congress with requested documents or answers, and (2) bribing or libeling a Member of Congress. Contempt citations are limited to matters which relate to legislative purposes and which fall within the affected committee's established jurisdiction.

Several Supreme Court decisions have upheld the contempt authority of Congress, most notably Anderson v. Dunn, decided in 1821. Congress sets the procedures and punishment for contempt by statute. The current contempt statute (2 USC 192) was adopted in 1857, and has been amended several times over the years. This statute also limits the issuance of contempt citations to matters which relate to legislative purposes and which fall within the affected committee's established jurisdiction as delegated to it by the full House or Senate.

Parliamentary precedents for granting legislatures contempt powers go back to English parliamentary practices in the Elizabethan era. The first use of congressional contempt power was in 1795 when the House cited and punished Robert Randall for trying to bribe a Member. The Senate first voted a contempt citation in 1800 when William Duane was arrested for libeling a Member.


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