Contempt of Congress

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CONTEMPT OF CONGRESS. The investigative power of Congress and its role as policymaker would be hindered without the ability to compel testimony and documents from witnesses. Just as a failure to comply with a court order can subject individuals to a charge of contempt of court, the failure to comply with a congressional order can lead to a charge of contempt of Congress. In 1982, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Anne M. Gorsuch refused to provide documents subpoenaed by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce regarding Superfund enforcement. The committee passed a resolution citing Gorsuch for contempt, and the resolution passed the full House. Had Gorsuch continued to withhold the documents, the referral to the U.S. Attorney for prosecution could have resulted in a sentence of one year in prison and a fine of $1,000.

The procedures and penalties for contempt of Congress are set by statute, 2 U.S.C. 192. While the Constitution does not explicitly provide for the congressional contempt power, the Supreme Court held in Anderson v. Dunn (1821) that such power is implicit in Congress's function as a legislature. Congress may cite individuals for contempt for failing to appear before Congress, refusing to provide testimony or documents to Congress, or bribing or libeling a member of Congress. There are, however, some limitations on Congress' power. The Supreme Court established in a series of cases surrounding McCarthyism that a congressional committee may only investigate areas in which it is empowered to legislate and may only issue contempt citations in areas where the committee exercises jurisdiction.

Congress has long used contempt citations as a political tool. The very first contempt citation by the Senate involved the attempted silencing of William Duane, editor of the Democratic-Republican newspaper the Aurora. Duane had published an article in the last term of Federalist president John Adams, giving the full text of a bill to establish a Federalist-dominated committee to review Electoral College ballots in the election of 1800 and incorrectly asserting that the bill had been passed by the full Senate. After initially submitting to congressional authority, Duane went into hiding after being cited for contempt. Upon the election of a new Antifederalist-dominated Congress and the government's move to Washington, D.C., Duane resurfaced in Philadelphia and returned to publishing his newspaper. In recent history, congressional committees have often brought contempt charges against high-level executive officers, only to have the full House or Senate reject the charges. Among these contempt citations was a charge in 1998 by the Republican-dominated House Government Reform and Oversight Committee against Attorney General Janet Reno for failing to appoint an independent counsel to investigate alleged campaign finance improprieties of the Clinton-Gore 1996 campaign.


Goldfarb, Ronald L. The Contempt Power. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

Donald A.Downs

Martin J.Sweet

See alsoCongress, United States .