Congress's Contempt Power and the Enforcement of Congressional Subpoenas: A Sketch [August 14, 2012] [open pdf - 267KB]
"Congress's contempt power is the means by which Congress responds to certain acts that in its view obstruct the legislative process. Contempt may be used either to coerce compliance, punish the contemnor, and/or to remove the obstruction. Although arguably any action that directly obstructs the effort of Congress to exercise its constitutional powers may constitute a contempt, in recent times the contempt power has most often been employed in response to non-compliance with a duly issued congressional subpoena--whether in the form of a refusal to appear before a committee for purposes of providing testimony or a refusal to produce requested documents. Congress has three formal methods by which it can combat non-compliance with a duly issued subpoena. Each of these methods invokes the authority of a separate branch of government. First, the long dormant inherent contempt power permits Congress to rely on its own constitutional authority to detain and imprison a contemnor until the individual complies with congressional demands. Second, the criminal contempt statute permits Congress to certify a contempt citation to the executive branch for the criminal prosecution of the contemnor. Finally, Congress may rely on the judicial branch to enforce a congressional subpoena. Under this procedure, Congress may seek a civil judgment from a federal court declaring that the individual in question is legally obligated to comply with the congressional subpoena. […] This report examines the source of Congress's contempt power, analyzes the procedures associated with inherent contempt, criminal contempt, and the civil enforcement of subpoenas, and discusses the obstacles that face Congress in enforcing a contempt action against an executive branch official. A more fully developed and detailed version of this report, complete with sources and references, can be found at CRS Report RL34097, Congress's Contempt Power and the Enforcement of Congressional Subpoenas: Law, History, Practice, and Procedure, by Todd Garvey and Alissa M. Dolan."
CRS Report for Congress, RL34114