The votes were the first time in the nation’s history that a sitting Cabinet member had been held in contempt by either house of the US Congress. Only once before has Congress even used its other significant power of disdain, impeachment proceedings, against a sitting Cabinet official. That was in 1870 against William Belknap, President Ulysses Grant’s Secretary of War, according to Senate Historian Donald Ritchie.
So what’s the outcome of a pair of historic votes in the House today?
In all likelihood, nothing.
When the House’s measure is referred to the Justice Department, the institution could use what’s known as prosecutorial discretion to avoid taking up the issue. That’s what the Justice Department decided under President Bush when House Democrats moved criminal contempt charges against two members of the White House staff who refused to testify before Congress in 2008.
The House could then file a civil contempt suit in federal court, asking a judge to compel Holder to deliver the documents in question. If the 2008 saga is any barometer, a legal fight in the courts will likely take years.