Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated Wednesday that House Democrats are likely to fight administration officials refusing to comply with congressional oversight requests in court rather than resort to more extreme measures like using Congress’ inherent contempt power to detain them until they comply.
“We do have a little jail down in the basement of the Capitol, but if we were arresting all of the people in the administration we would have an overcrowded jail situation,” she said. “And I’m not for that.”
Pelosi’s comments came at a Washington Post live event Wednesday in response to a question about how House Democrats will respond to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin refusing, on behalf of the IRS, to give Congress the six years of President Donald Trump’s tax returns they requested.
The speaker said there are several options for responding, but noted one is going directly to court. She seemed to indicate a preference for that response, but she deferred to Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal to make a decision.
Neal told reporters Tuesday evening he would decide his next steps by the end of the week but said he expects the matter will ultimately be resolved in court.
Pelosi’s comments ruling out jailing administration officials came roughly an hour before the Judiciary Committee was set to deliberate and vote on holding Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a subpoena for the unredacted Mueller report and underlying investigatory materials.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler had been engaging in negotiations with the Justice Department all day Tuesday on a potential compromise for lawmakers accommodations to view more of the Mueller report.
But at some point Tuesday night the talks broke down, and Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said in a letter that if the Judiciary Committee proceeds to hold Barr in contempt the attorney general will advise the president to exert executive privilege over the subpoenaed material.
According to Boyd’s letter the Judiciary Committee’s last offer to DOJ, “escalating its unreasonable demands,” was to allow all of its panel members, House Intelligence Committee members, and some of their staff be allowed to review a less redacted version of the Mueller report. The only concealment would be on grand jury information.
The department objected because doing so would have violated court orders and rules in multiple ongoing investigations, Boyd’s letter said.
Judiciary Democrats also insisted that DOJ join the committee in requesting a court order for the panel to see the grand jury information, a demand Boyd said would force DOJ to ignore existing law.
Pelosi said she felt that Judiciary Democrats offer to DOJ “was very accommodating.”
“I would have wanted more,” she said.
Pelosi endorsed the panel’s effort to hold Barr in contempt of Congress and said if they report that citation out of the committee it will be brought to the House floor for a vote.
Asked whether House Democrats might also consider impeaching Barr, Pelosi did not rule it out.
“Nothing is ever off the table,” she said.
The contempt citation can be enforced in one of three ways — civil action in court, criminal referral to DOJ or using inherent contempt to fine or jail Barr.
It’s unlikely Democrats would send a criminal referral for Barr to a department he runs. Pelosi did not mention fines when ruling out the jail component of contempt, so it’s possible Democrats may pursue fines against him.
But, most likely, Democrats will seek to uphold the contempt citation in court, which could turn into a lengthy battle.