President Barack Obama's decision to assert executive privilege over the documents produced after a February 4, 2011 letter which falsely denied that ATF allowed guns to "walk" during the operation could complicate things a bit more. Once the House votes on the contempt measure, a 19th century federal law requires federal prosecutors to refer contempt citations to a grand jury for possible prosecution.
U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ron Machen would receive the contempt citation, putting him in the awkward position of holding a grand jury focusing on his boss. Thankfully for Machen, he's got an out: both Democratic and Republican administrations have said that prosecutors can't initiate a prosecution once executive privilege is asserted.
Experts told TPM that contempt proceedings are "mostly for show" and the legal consequences are likely to be small. Charlie Savage writing in The New York Times, says the contempt citation "has symbolic value and can taint reputations" but has little practical effect.
Still, as the House Judiciary Committee did during the Bush administration, the House Oversight Committee could file its own lawsuit to try to have a judge enforce the contempt measure. But as NBC's Pete Williams explains, that could take quite a long time:
[I]f this does end up in court, it could take up to two years to resolve, given the time for a trial and subsequent appeals. However, a contempt citation is valid only during the Congress which approved it. Each term of Congress lasts only two years, so if the issue was still in the courts when this Congress ends in a year and a half, the contempt citation would evaporate, and so would any lawsuit.