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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff floated a new idea at an Axios News Shapers event this morning about how to enforce subpoenas against the Trump administration: fine officials who ignore them.

Why it matters: It's a risky move for House Democrats if they go ahead with it — because it's a largely untested idea, it's not 100% clear that Congress has the authority to do it, and it's definitely not clear how they would enforce it.

How it works:

  • The idea is to revive the congressional "inherent contempt" power — which hasn't been used in nearly a century, and was used to put witnesses on trial and imprison them in the Capitol.
  • But Schiff isn't interested in actually putting, say, Attorney General Bill Barr in handcuffs and throwing him in Congress jail. He's more interested in an alternative idea that has been suggested for inherent contempt: use it to impose fines instead.
  • "You could fine someone $25,000 a day until they comply," he said at the event. "We're looking through the history and studying the law to make sure we're on solid ground."

The catch: A Congressional Research Service report says it's an "open question" whether Congress actually has the authority to do that. It's never happened before, per CRS, but "there may be an argument supporting the existence of that power" — largely because of a passing mention of it in an 1880 Supreme Court case.

  • But if there's a legal challenge — which is a near-certainty from the Trump administration — CRS says the courts would probably put a lot of weight on the fact that Congress has never done this before.
  • And even if the courts decide that Congress has the authority, the report says, "it is unclear how such a fine would be implemented and ... collected."
  • Another option on the table for House Democrats: using their appropriations muscle — withholding funds to agencies until their officials comply with subpoenas.
  • A committee aide: "We have to look to historic practices to ensure Congress can perform its necessary oversight. Inherent contempt is one of those options, as is the appropriations process."

What's next: House Democrats will have to figure out if this is actually workable, and Schiff acknowledged that the decision will be made "above my pay grade" — by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in consultation with the committee chairs. "But if there is going to be this across-the-board stonewalling, we're going to have to consider extraordinary remedies."

The bottom line: The fact that House Democrats are thinking about such an untested step, and that Schiff was willing to discuss it at such an early stage, shows how eager they are to explore any options that don't involve letting Trump run out the clock in the courts.

Go deeper: How Trump can stall House Democrats

Go deeper

5 hours ago - World

Top general: U.S. losing time to deter China

Stanley McChrystal. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Stanley McChrystal, a top retired general and Biden adviser, tells Axios that "China's military capacity has risen much faster than people appreciate," and the U.S. is running out of time to counterbalance that in Asia and prevent a scenario such as it seizing Taiwan.

Why it matters: McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recently briefed the president-elect as part of his cabinet of diplomatic and national security advisers. President-elect Joe Biden is considering which Trump- or Obama-era approaches to keep or discard, and what new strategies to pursue.

Progressives shift focus from Biden's Cabinet to his policy agenda

Joe Biden giving remarks in Wilmington, Del., last month. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Some progressives tell Axios they believe the window for influencing President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet selections has closed, and they’re shifting focus to policy — hoping to shape Biden's agenda even before he’s sworn in.

Why it matters: The left wing of the party often draws attention for its protests, petitions and tweets, but this deliberate move reflects a determination to move beyond some fights they won't win to engage with Biden strategically, and over the long term.

Dave Lawler, author of World
7 hours ago - World

Venezuela's predictable elections herald an uncertain future

The watchful eyes of Hugo Chávez on an election poster in Caracas. Photo: Cristian Hernandez/AFP via Getty

Venezuelans will go to the polls on Sunday, Nicolás Maduro will complete his takeover of the last opposition-held body, and much of the world will refuse to recognize the results.

The big picture: The U.S. and dozens of other countries have backed an opposition boycott of the National Assembly elections on the grounds that — given Maduro's tactics (like tying jobs and welfare benefits to voting), track record, and control of the National Electoral Council — they will be neither free nor fair.