What Exactly Does Being Held In Contempt Of Congress Mean?

There are three formal ways Congress can hold a witness in contempt.

What Exactly Does Being Held In Contempt Of Congress Mean?
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So you've probably been hearing a lot about lawmakers voting to hold someone in contempt of Congress. 

"in contempt of Congress"

"in contempt of Congress"

"in contempt of Congress"

"in contempt of Congress"

But what does being held in contempt of Congress actually mean? 

Ok. Let's say a congressional committee calls on a witness to either testify or provide documents related to something the committee is interested in. Sometimes, that witness refuses to testify or turn over the relevant documents. The committee can then issue the witness a subpoena to do so.

But, in the event that the witness doesn't comply with the subpoena, there are three formal ways Congress can hold a witness in contempt. 

1. The rarely used inherent contempt. It lets Congress ask its appropriate sergeant at arms to detain and imprison the person until they comply with the subpoena.

2. Congress can certify a contempt citation to the executive branch to try and get the witness criminally prosecuted. 

And 3. Congress can take it to federal court and get a civil judgment forcing the person to comply with the subpoena. 

Let's take the contempt vote against Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, for example. In this situation, Congress chose door No. 2 — a contempt citation. In order to do so, the House Oversight Committee had to vote whether to move the contempt vote to the full chamber and submit a report. That report details the process it followed when it issued the subpoena, any objections or privileges raised by the witness, and the effectiveness of bringing a civil action against the subpoenaed party. 

According to the criminal contempt statute, every person who is summoned to either testify or produce documents to Congress or congressional committees and refuses to do so, "shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 nor less than $100 and imprisonment in a common jail for not less than one month nor more than twelve months."

The criminal contempt statute was instituted by Congress in 1857.