Speaker Nancy Pelosi resurfaced one of the Capitol’s most enduring mysteries when answering a question about whether Democrats might imprison Trump administration officials who defy Congress: the House jail. But where is this mysterious cell?
“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. And I’m not for that,” Pelosi said Wednesday at a Washington Post live event.
The House Judiciary Committee approved a resolution later Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress over his refusal to share the full, unredacted report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
Even if the full House holds Barr in contempt, the Justice Department likely won’t hand over the complete report. That has Democrats mulling other options to get it.
“Inherent contempt” is a long-dormant power that allows Congress to rely on its own constitutional authority to detain and imprison “contemners” until they comply with a congressional demand.
Pelosi appeared to rule out using Congress’ inherent contempt power to detain administration officials who don’t comply with congressional oversight requests.
But in a hypothetical situation, there’s still a question of where to hold any detainees.
Even senators’ offices are fielding questions. A staffer in Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin’s office was overheard Tuesday answering a phone inquiry about the existence of a “congressional jail.”
Capitol Police officers from multiple divisions told CQ Roll Call that no House jail exists, though Capitol Police headquarters on D Street Northeast does have a holding facility.
One Capitol Police officer joked that if they don’t know where the alleged holding cell in the Capitol basement is, but Pelosi does, the speaker might have to escort any prisoner, say, like Barr, personally.
“Obviously, there is not a functioning jail in the Capitol,” a senior Democratic aide told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday.
A history lesson
Then why so much confusion about the location or existence of such a jail?
One answer is that there once was a cell in the Capitol basement to hold those in contempt, but it is long gone.
“In the past, they had a House jail,” California Democrat Ted Lieu, a member of the House Judiciary panel, said last week. “I don’t think we’re going to go that far, but courts have upheld that.”
An interview with longtime Senate counsel Chuck Ludlam conducted by the Senate Historical Office’s oral history project shows that the confusion about the jail’s existence is longstanding.
“I went to the Architect of the Capitol and found out where the old Capitol jail was located. There was at one time a jail here in the Capitol where the Congress could imprison citizens who refused to comply with its subpoenas,” Ludlam said.
“Several rooms in the Capitol have evidently been used for detention of offenders. They were called ‘Guard Rooms’ and it is not always clear whether those rooms were kept strictly for custody of prisoners or whether they were also used as a guard station,” then-Architect of the Capitol George M. White told Ludlam.
An October 1902 edition of the Washington Evening Star refers to one of these locations in the “room now occupied as the House of Representatives post office, in the southeast corner of the ground floor of the Capitol.”
An exploration by CQ Roll Call reporters and photographers determined that the Star’s reference could be HT-1, which had a previous life as a post office and was locked Wednesday morning.
Also watch: This Simple Wooden Platform Has a Poignant History on Capitol Hill
Tomb of empty promises
More than one rumor about the House jail has referenced Washington’s Tomb. The empty burial chamber is directly below the Capitol Crypt, two stories below the Rotunda. It was designed to hold the body of George Washington, but that never worked out.
Today, the tomb is a shadowy space that holds the Lincoln catafalque, the wood structure that the coffin of President Abraham Lincoln was placed on and that has been used for dignitaries honored in the Capitol ever since. It is enclosed by a gated door that could easily resemble the bars of an old-school prison cell.
Further confusion could stem from a Capitol-adjacent building that used to be called the “Capitol Prison” or “Old Capitol Jail,” despite not being owned by Congress or serving as a jail for most of its existence.
“During the Civil War, the federal government used it as a prison to incarcerate spies, Confederate soldiers, and troublesome southern sympathizers,” reads an entry on the website of the House historian’s office.
The building was one block east of the Capitol, where the Supreme Court building now stands.
“No evidence suggests that any room in the Capitol was ever designated for use as a jail,” the same website entry reads, contradicting what the former architect of the Capitol once told Ludlam.
“The handful of individuals the House has found to be in contempt and, thus, detained, were almost certainly held temporarily in the offices of the Sergeant at Arms, locked in committee anterooms, or put under guard at local hotels,” the House historian’s website adds.
A senior House Democratic aide told CQ Roll Call that the sergeant-at-arms could use existing spaces in the Capitol to hold someone, as has been done in the past.
If the day comes that the House sergeant-at-arms arrests Barr, they’d be wise to choose from the abundance of small windowless rooms on the House side of the Capitol in order to avoid Republican senators attempting to jailbreak the attorney general.