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Hardball
April 24, 2019

House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week, and repeated on MSNBC Tuesday, that President Trump's "White House has refused to hand over any documents or produce any witnesses for interviews" this Congress. Trump, in fact, is suing Cummings to thwart some subpoenas and told the Post on Tuesday he doesn't want any of his current or former aides to testify before Congress.

Faced with this aggressive resistance to congressional oversight from Trump administration officials, Bloomberg reports, "some Democrats want to make them pay" — literally. "At a meeting of House leaders earlier this month, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler [D-N.Y.] suggested fining officials personally if they deny or ignore subpoenas," Bloomberg says, the idea being "to put teeth in his party's numerous investigative queries. ... Nadler even mentioned jailing administration officials as a consequence for contempt of Congress, though he surmised such a plan might be unrealistic."

House committees can vote to hold administration officials in contempt and take them to court, setting up a lengthy legal battle. But the House could also revive a mechanism called "inherent contempt" — voting in a new rule that allows it to fine people outside the court system for defying subpoenas. That process got its name "because courts have said the power is an inherent part of Congress' legislative powers," Bloomberg reports, though it "was mostly mothballed in recent years because it was politically unpalatable."

Now, given White House stonewalling, "it's political suicide to allow this to continue," said Morton Rosenberg, a longtime Congressional Research Service official who has proposed fining recalcitrant officials. Congress used to jail people it held in contempt, and the Supreme Court said that was fine, but Cornell University law professor Josh Chafetz tells Bloomberg that Congress has other remedies, like cutting funds for departments or individual federal officials who defy subpoenas. You can read more about House Democrats' options at Bloomberg. Peter Weber

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