This may come as a shock to Lois Lerner, but the House of Representatives has the authority to jail her unless she changes her mind about refusing to answer questions about her role in the IRS scandal. Essentially, what is required for that to happen is for a House majority to vote for a motion holding her in contempt and House Speaker John Boehner to then direct the House sergeant at arms to arrest and confine her. Under the Constitution, the House can do that under its “inherent contempt” authority, which was initially exercised in 1795 during the First Congress and on multiple occasions thereafter. Lerner could be held until January 2015 when a new Congress is seated, which could issue another subpoena and throw her in the clink again if she still balks at testifying.
According to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, inherent contempt has the unique advantage that it doesn’t require “the cooperation or assistance of either the executive or judicial branches. The House or Senate can, on its own, conduct summary proceedings and cite the offender for contempt.” The prospect of an eight or nine month stretch in the congressional slammer might have a sobering effect on Lerner. On the other hand, neither the House nor the Senate has used this authority since 1935, according to the CRS report, because the process can be “unseemly” and time-consuming.
Plus, Lerner may be on solid ground in thinking Boehner and other House Republicans don't have the political spine to jail her. But just as the South's “massive resistance” in the 1950s to racial integration was doomed to fail because it could not be sustained over time, the Obama administration's comprehensive refusal since November 2010 to cooperate with legitimate congressional oversight by House committees may be sowing seeds of frustration that eventually undercut Lerner's calculation of how long she can keep silent. Chairman Darrell Issa of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Rep. Jim Jordan, who heads that panel's oversight subcommittee, are patient individuals but perhaps not that patient.
Something else is also clear: House leaders have effectively laid the legal predicate for a contempt vote. Earlier this week, the Office of General Counsel for the House delivered its opinion that Issa's committee has satisfied all legal requirements in its dealings with Lerner and her Fifth Amendment claim, so “there is no constitutional impediment to … the committee approving a resolution recommending that the full House hold Ms. Lerner in contempt of Congress …”
Contempt citations aren't common but neither are they a thing of the past. Among those cited for contempt just since 1980 are such notables as Attorney General Eric Holder, then-White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and then-White House General Counsel Harriet Miers, then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford and then-EPA Assistant Administrator Rita Lavelle.
None of those worthies ended up behind congressional bars, but then none of them was accused of being at the heart of an illegal effort to hijack the oppressive power of the federal tax agency to deprive thousands of Americans of their most sacred rights under the First Amendment.