The Contempt Act: Who would it affect from the Obama administration?

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A group of House Republicans led by Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold has proposed a bill that would withhold the pay of federal officials and employees who are held in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas.

The measure has little chance of winning approval from the Democrat-controlled Senate or from President Obama, if it ever passes in the House. Nonetheless, we decided to look at which officials from the current administration have faced contempt votes and how the legislation would affect them.

GOP lawmakers have pursued contempt charges against two Obama administration officials: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner.

Under the Farenthold bill, a contempt vote by the full House or the full Senate would trigger a pay suspension, meaning a federal court would not have to convict the employee in order for the policy to take effect. The legislation would not affect retirement pay, according to Farenthold’s office.  

Holder

Under Fahrenthold’s bill, Holder would no longer receive a paycheck.

The House voted in June 2012 to find the attorney general in criminal contempt of Congress — 17 Democrats supported the resolution — for failure to produce certain documents related to the ATF’s Fast and Furious gun-walking operation, a botched attempt to infiltrate firearm-smuggling rings by allowing traffickers to illegally obtain weapons.


Attorney General Eric Holder. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Obama exerted executive privilege over the documents after Holder issued a letter to the White House arguing that sharing the information would “raise substantial separation-of-powers concerns and potentially create an imbalance in the relationship” between Congress and the executive branch.

The Justice Department, which oversees the ATF, acknowledged in 2011 that the Fast and Furious program was “fundamentally flawed” and that DOJ had provided Congress with “inaccurate” information about its knowledge of the operation.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on the same day of the 2012 contempt vote, telling him the DOJ would not prosecute Holder and that his refusal to turn over documents did not constitute a crime. (Details of this case are available in a 2014 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service).

The House subsequently passed a resolution permitting the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to file a civil-enforcement action against Holder in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The Justice Department asked for the case to be dismissed, but the court rejected that request. It has not issued an opinion on the merits of the lawsuit, but a hearing on several motions for summary judgement are scheduled for next month, according to the Congressional Research Service report.

Lerner

Lerner headed an IRS division that reviewed applications for tax-exempt status. An inspector general’s report last May said that her department targeted advocacy groups for extra scrutiny based on their names and policy positions.


Former IRS official Lois Lerner. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Republicans have pointed to the behavior as evidence of a possible Obama administration conspiracy to silence conservative critics. Democrats counter that GOP lawmakers are using the controversy to score political points.

Lerner, who retired from the federal government in September, has refused to testify before the House oversight committee about the targeting controversy. In a party-line vote, the panel approved a resolution saying she waived her Fifth Amendment right by declaring innocence before invoking the privilege at a hearing last May.

The former official again declined to testify at a hearing in March, after which the committee approved a resolution holding her in contempt of Congress — again voting along party lines. The full House is yet to vote on the measure.

Farenthold’s bill would not affect Lerner, since she has retired from the government.

Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor, said in a statement after the contempt vote that his client had done nothing wrong and that no court in the country would convict her of contempt. “The vote is the latest event in the majority’s ‎never-ending effort to keep the IRS story alive through this fall’s midterm elections,” he said.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks(at)washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, and The Fed Page for more federal news. Submit news tips and suggestions to federalworker@washpost.com.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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