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Can Congress Hold You in Contempt?

By Andrew Leonatti | Last updated on

The U.S. House Select Committee is just starting to dive into its investigation of what happened on Jan. 6, when a mob of angry Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building. The committee is probing what Trump and others close to him knew about the rioters' plans that day.

So far, people in Trump's orbit are mostly refusing to play ball by ignoring subpoenas issued by the committee to give depositions. Eager to send a message, committee members are promising to hold a vote this week to hold Steve Bannon, a former adviser to Trump, in contempt.

Congress' Contempt Powers

Many people's understanding of contempt resides solely in the realm of courtroom dramas, where judges threaten to hold overly dramatic attorneys in contempt. Contempt, in general, refers to showing disrespect to a judge or the court's authority. You can learn more about criminal contempt of court here and civil contempt of court here.

What many don't realize is that Congress has much the same power to hold someone in contempt. While not spelled out in the Constitution, the 1916 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Marshall v. Gordon, along with many other rulings, upheld Congress' "inherent" power to hold people in contempt while conducting its business.

What Will Happen to Bannon?

As a former White House employee, Bannon is arguing that he does not have to testify because of executive privilege. Whether Bannon can claim executive privilege is also likely to bog down any contempt proceedings in litigation.

Other people close to Trump, such as his last Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, are negotiating with the committee. Barring last-second compliance, the committee will vote on a resolution stating that Bannon is in criminal contempt of Congress.

From there, the resolution can proceed to the floor of the House, where the entire chamber will consider and vote on it. If that vote passes, there are several possible outcomes.

Criminal Contempt

The House can send the resolution on to the U.S. Justice Department. This could be the most likely outcome since the committee has noted it is considering a criminal contempt resolution. A conviction on this charge could mean a $1,000 fine and up to a year in federal prison. However, the Justice Department has the final say on pursuing the charges and may decline to prosecute Bannon.

Civil Contempt

Another option is that after approving the contempt resolution, the House could sue Bannon in federal court. As slow as the court system works, though, this would likely not prompt the faster resolution that the committee wants.


A power that Congress has but rarely uses is its "inherent contempt" power. Using this authority, the House can order the House sergeant-at-arms (an actual law enforcement officer) to detain Bannon on the U.S. Capitol complex's grounds until he complies or the current session of Congress ends next year. The House can also levy punishment such as prison and fines to compel testimony in this case. While this would be the quickest way to take action, this is widely considered the "nuclear" option in Congress' contempt powers. It has not been used since 1934.

Can This Happen To You?

If the above description of what could happen to Steve Bannon didn't make it clear, yes, this can happen to you if you refuse to respond to a congressional subpoena. If that were ever to occur, you should talk to an attorney as quickly as possible.

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