Congress

Hoyer: Democrats not using inherent contempt, hope to conclude impeachment inquiry this year

Inherent contempt could be seen as ‘arbitrary’ move to enforce subpoenas, which courts are already upholding, Hoyer says

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, seen navigating through a crowd of tourists as he heads into the speaker's office last month, said Wednesday that Democrats will not use their inherent contempt power to enforce subpoenas. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Wednesday ruled out Democrats using inherent contempt to enforce subpoenas and became the most senior Democrat to say the chamber should wrap up its impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump by the end of 2019.

“We made a judgment that we want the American people to understand that we are pursuing not arbitrary action but considered and thoughtful action,” the Maryland Democrat said. “I don’t mean to say by that that inherent contempt is by definition arbitrary but it may be perceived as arbitrary.”

Inherent contempt is an authority the House has to jail, fine or otherwise penalize officials who do not comply with its subpoenas. But the power has not been used since the 1930s, as the House has gone to the courts for relief when it has needed to enforce its subpoenas. 

Hoyer cited a spate of recent court cases stemming from congressional investigations into Trump in which judges have upheld the House’s subpoena authority as a reason why the chamber does not need to turn to inherent contempt.

“We are proceeding and we are winning and the authority that we are claiming is being supported by the courts in the United States of America,” Hoyer said. 

However, it’s not clear that Democrats’ plan to start new court cases to enforce subpoenas in cases where officials are not complying. Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff told reporters two weeks ago that his panel and the others leading the inquiry will “have to decide whether to litigate or how to litigate.” 

But as Schiff, Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings and Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel have issued subpoenas, they’ve not threatened court action as a means to enforce them. Instead, they’ve warned noncompliance would be considered as evidence of obstruction of Congress, a potential article of impeachment.

Hoyer on Wednesday was asked about inherent contempt in the context of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani defying a subpoena for documents. 

“Let me tell you: Mr. Giuliani will be held accountable to the Congress, as we will every other individual,” Hoyer said, without offering details on how.

‘Not a lot of months’

Regarding the timeframe of the impeachment inquiry, there has long been a broad sentiment in the Democratic Caucus that it should conclude this year before the 2020 presidential election gets into full swing. But Hoyer is the first senior member of leadership to back that timeline.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the only Democrat who ranks higher than Hoyer, has declined to provide any specific timing goals, other to than say the inquiry will be conducted “expeditiously.”

Hoyer was initially just as vague when questioned about it during his weekly pen and pad briefing with reporters, saying he wanted the inquiry done “sooner rather than later.” 

Asked if that meant weeks, he said, “I hope no longer than months and not a lot of months.”

Pressed if that meant by the end of the year, Hoyer said, “That would be my hope. But again, I want to emphasize this is no rush to judgment.”

Appropriations impact?

Hoyer also said he hopes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans will not use the impeachment inquiry as an excuse not to negotiate with Democrats on a fiscal 2020 appropriations package.

“If he is he is not doing his responsibility to the American people. And all of us [are] all in that same category,” dismissing the notion that the Congress cannot do both in a responsible way. “It is not the ability to work that is absent. It is the will to do so that is absent.”

The continuing resolution keeping the government open is set to expire Nov. 21. Having passed 10 of its 12 fiscal 2020 bills, the House is waiting on the Senate to catch up, but the upper chamber has been at an impasse over funding levels, primarily stemming from a dispute over money for continuing construction of a barrier at the southern U.S. border.

“I am very hopeful that we can get it all done by November 21st. If we don’t, clearly I am not for shutting down the government,” Hoyer said, seeming to endorse another stopgap but noting that would be “a failure of the United States Senate to do its work.”

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