Contempt of Congress

Congressional contempt citations are hanging over various White House insiders. Sometimes reporters get them, too — including a citation from the House Ethics Committee.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

We're not going to predict whether more turbulence lies ahead for Wall Street, but it's clear that the problems of Alberto Gonzales aren't over yet. The attorney general has until Thursday to resolve inconsistencies in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. His troubles stemmed from the firings of nine federal prosecutors. This past week, the House Judiciary Committee approved contempt citations against White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for refusing to testify in the case.

The contempt charges struck a chord with NPR senior news analyst Dan Schorr.

DANIEL SCHORR: I have more than a passing interest in contempt citations. I was threatened with one by the House Ethics Committee in 1976. It was because I had refused to disclose a source of a sensitive report by the House Intelligence Committee on CIA misdeeds. The House had voted to suppress the report so the public wouldn't see it, but I saw it, and the ethics committee wanted to know how.

So I'm in a position to answer questions about what the Senate and House can do to you. Question one: how is a contempt citation enforced? Well, normally, it's referred to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. He then takes it before a grand jury. Is that likely to happen with Josh Bolten and Harriet Miers? No, because the Justice Department won't let the U.S. attorney pursue the case.

So, is that the end of it? Not necessarily. Congress has what is called the inherent power to make arrest and to conduct its own trials. In fact, Congress used to be able to confine persons found in contempt and still, sort of, has a cell for that purpose in the Capitol basement. It hasn't been occupied for a long time.

Next question. Can the sergeant at arms actually go to the White House and arrest the chief of staff? Theoretically, but it is not very likely. I don't think you'll see the sergeant at arms in a pitched battle with the Secret Service at the White House lawn.

So what did the House Ethics Committee threaten me with in 1976? Well, the committee chairman warned that I could be subject to two years in jail and a $20,000 fine. And what happened? Well, I testified in open session and the committee then voted six to five not to find me in contempt but to reprimand me. I didn't much like being scolded, but it sure beat a couple of years in the jailhouse.

This is Daniel Schorr.

ROBERTS: And for the record, here's a snippet of Daniel Schorr before the House Ethics Committee in 1976.

(Soundbite of House committee hearing)

SCHORR: And if you will permit me one last personal word beyond all this constitutional argument, I would like to say beyond all of this, to betray a source would be for me to betray myself, my career, and my life, and to say that I refused to do it isn't quite saying it right, I cannot do it.

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