Can you imagine how many schoolbook publishers are having sleepless nights because of the battle in Congress over its powers to issue subpoenas and get compliance? All these years it was the understanding of every child educated in America that there are three branches of government. They are the Executive (president), the Legislative (Congress) and the Judiciary (the courts.)
With little or no warning to the book publishers and the rest of the world, President Donald Trump has told the House of Representatives that in his mind, they are chopped liver and he doesn’t have to pay attention to them at all. Even though the U.S. Constitution specifically states that there shall be three co-equal branches of government, the president has declared that since the House of Representatives is being run by Democrats, he doesn’t have to cooperate with them.
To the average citizen trying to take the 5:14 p.m. to Levittown, it may not matter how many branches of government there are, but eventually if the federal government collapses into a flurry of lawsuits and bickering, even the little guy will suffer. To start with, the House is the place where all of the funding for government operations begins. It is the only branch of the government that can propose taxes and has the ability to stop monies from being spent for hundreds of important government services. That’s one way the average citizen could be hurt.
I don’t think there is one living constitutional scholar who believes that Trump can win this battle. Either house of Congress has the right to subpoena witnesses or documents. If people like Attorney General William Barr or Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin think they can defy either house, they are in for an unpleasant experience. You don’t have to believe me on this subject. Back in 1821, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that without the power to hold people in contempt of Congress, the legislative branch would be “exposed to every indignity and interruption that rudeness, caprice, or even conspiracy may mediate against it.”
It is established law that either house can commence contempt proceedings. Unlike the passage of a law, the two houses don’t have to approve a contempt proceeding. Once a committee produces a contempt citation, it has to be debated by the full chamber. Even if there is a filibuster, sooner or later a majority can vote formally to hold someone in contempt. So even an imperial president can’t stop the process from moving along.
Is contempt of Congress the equivalent of a parking ticket? Contempt of Congress is a federal misdemeanor, punishable by a $100,000 fine and up to one year in prison. Since 1975, 10 federal officials have been held in contempt. Among the big names who hold that honor are Henry Kissinger (1975), Joseph A. Califano, Jr. (1978), James Watt, (1982), William French Smith (1983) and Attorney General Janet Reno (1998). Once they were formally held in contempt, the White House gave in and provided either the documents or the witnesses needed to satisfy Congress.
Let’s say that Mnuchin or Barr is held in contempt. And the president decides to appeal their violation to the Supreme Court. That could happen, but if either side got a bad decision they would be sorry they ever tried that maneuver. Smart lawyers would tell their client that a Supreme Court decision could tie the hands of either the president or the Congress forever. So be careful what you wish for.
Up to now, the president has portrayed the flurry of subpoenas as being a Democratic thing. But apparently, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, a Republican, still thinks that there are issues raised by the special prosecutor that must be resolved and has served a subpoena on Donald Trump Jr. So now, the legitimacy of the subpoenas is being tested by both political parties.
I know the average voter doesn’t care very much about this congressional boxing bout with the president, but if we don’t have a Congress that is respected by any president, then we move closer to being a banana republic.