If a congressional subpoena is to mean anything, there have to be consequences for those who ignore one.
Otherwise, testifying under oath before Congress becomes a completely voluntary exercise, and the ability of Congress to investigate the executive branch and hold it accountable becomes severely weakened.
A House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack on Congress by supporters of Donald Trump was left no choice by Steve Bannon, the former adviser and aide to Trump. When Bannon refused the panel’s subpoena, it had to make good on its threat that such defiance would trigger a possible criminal prosecution against him.
There weren’t many Republican votes last week in the decision to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress, but there were nine, including by the two GOP members sitting on the House panel conducting the investigation. So it was at least somewhat bipartisan.
Bannon is a potential key witness, and his trying to hide behind a directive from the former president’s lawyer to not testify is without merit. Bannon, a private citizen at the time of the insurrection, could have easily ignored that letter instead of Congress’ subpoena.
The reason he did not is clear. Bannon is not worried about one of the worst assaults on democracy in our nation’s history. He is concerned, though, about maintaining his followers and building their number among Trump’s ultraconservative base. Defying a majority Democratic panel makes Bannon a hero in their eyes, even if a lawbreaking one.
Attorney General Merrick Garland should not let him get away with it.
The U.S. Justice Department historically has been shy about prosecuting charges for contempt of Congress, largely because the cases are difficult to win and can drag out for years, making the witnesses’ cooperation a moot point by the time they are resolved.
Both of those factors may be true in Bannon’s case, but his blanket refusal to cooperate with a congressional investigation is so blatant and so void of legal merit that it cannot be ignored.
Even if there is no compelling him to testify, prosecuting him would serve a purpose for legislators of both political parties. Right now the focus in on former President Trump, but there will come a time when Congress wants to investigate his Democratic successor, Joe Biden. Such probes happen with every president of every party.
If Bannon can show that there are no consequences to defying Congress, others may choose to do the same now and in the future. Should that become the case, congressional oversight will become so limited in power that those who serve in the executive branch may think there is nothing short of impeachment and the next election to hold them accountable.
Making Bannon’s life uncomfortable would send a useful message. It would tell other witnesses that at a minimum, they better negotiate with Congress after being summoned to testify rather than acting as if it’s nothing of consequence.
- The Greenwood Commonwealth