What Does It Mean to be Held in Contempt of Congress?

Social Justice Policy Brief #33 | By: Maureen Darby-Serson | May 11, 2022

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Policy Summary

Several subpoenas sent out by the January 6thcommittee have gone unanswered, holding certain individuals in contempt of congress for not appearing to speak to Former President Donald Trump’s participation in the insurrection at the US Capital. What does this mean?

In summary, not much. Not answering subpoenas could turn into a criminal charge – a misdemeanor, which if convicted, could include up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Around 24 people have been held in contempt of congress since the 1970s but only one person has seen any jail time, and this was for lying to congress, not a conviction for being held in contempt. There have been several individuals who were referred for criminal charges over the years, but the US Justice Department did not process these referrals. 

This list has not been updated to include unanswered subpoenas that have been sent by the January 6th committee, specifically to Mark Meadows and Steve Bannon. The two have been considered in  contempt of congress for unanswered subpoenas sent to them by the January 6th committee late last year. The US Justice Department would have to bring formal charges against the two for a criminal conviction. It is unclear if this will occur.. 

As with most individuals who are held in contempt of congress, the two still can appear in front of Congress and/or produce the required documents for the committee. This is what most people end up doing and contempt charges eventually get dropped.

Policy Analysis

With the criminal charge having minimal penalties, why would someone who has something to hide appear before the January 6th committee?  

Former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, found it was easier to resign from office than face Congress. Since most of the individuals subpoenaed by the January 6th committee are already out of office, resigning as a strategy does not exist. 

This tradition of not appearing before Congress has blown up in the Trump Era, with Trump himself refusing to appear in front of multiple offices investigating his misconduct and his businesses. For example, Trump is currently being considered in contempt of court order for failing to comply with a subpoena from New York state’s Attorney General. He is being fined $10,000 a day until he complies.


A judge says Trump must pay $110K and meet other conditions to end contempt order.

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Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

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Congressional Research Service: https://crsreports.congress.gov/

Jan 6th: https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/LSB/LSB10649

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U.S. Justice Department: https://www.justice.gov/archives/jm/criminal-resource-manual-279-subpoenas

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ACLU Podcast on Former President Trump’s subpoenas: https://www.aclu.org/podcast/all-presidents-subpoenas-ep-106

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