Congress and the administration keep getting closer and closer to the edge. As part of the U.S. attorney firings investigation, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) has threatened to subpoena Karl Rove and other White House officials, a subpoena the White House will certainly fight. And in the House, House reform committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) has subpoenaed Condoleezza Rice to testify next month; Rice has said she wonât comply.
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So what happens when they get to the edge? Will we see top officials in cuffs soon?
The short answer: no, but a subpoena still gets results.
Former general counsel to the House Charles Tiefer explained that these face-offs never culminate in court.
"In theory, what happens is, after the House, or the Senate, goes through a certain process, [the case] is kicked over to a prosecutor," Tiefer said. But to think that will actually happen "is a naive way" of looking at Congressional investigations.
No top government official has ever been indicted for failing to respond to a Congressional subpoena. Tiefer, who signed off on more Congressional subpoenas than anyone else while counsel to the House from 1984 to 1996, explained that these investigations mount pressure to achieve results.
When asked if a Congressional subpoena has teeth he asked his own question: âDoes a vise have teeth?â Well, no, but, âyou could crack stones in a vise.â
The investigation process ramps up political pressure with letters, media outreach, subpoenas and contempt until one side cracks. The more bipartisan support an investigation has, the heavier each move weighs. The more the public supports the opposing branch, the more likely a committee will be to back down.
Usually a negotiated agreement is reached before the investigation hits a serious phase.