Congress’s traditional tools to enforce its subpoenas are either symbolic or archaic. Refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena is a federal crime, but no one expects Trump’s Justice Department to prosecute Trump-administration officials for defying Democrat-controlled committees. The House can file a federal lawsuit to enforce a subpoena, but those cases can take years to resolve. In an earlier era, the House might have dispatched its sergeant-at-arms to arrest a subpoena scofflaw, but that option hasn’t been used in more than a half century.
Realistically, the House will not lock any administration official in jail anytime soon. What it can do is force federal agencies to shutter their doors on October 1, when the federal government’s fiscal year 2019 budget expires. Or the House could up the ante and refuse to raise the debt ceiling, in which case the federal government’s fiscal slack will likely run out in September or October. Unless both chambers of Congress vote to lift the debt cap, the United States will default.
Some House Democrats realize they can capitalize on these looming deadlines. Representative Adam Schiff of California suggested last month that House Democrats might tie funding for federal agencies to compliance with congressional subpoenas. A bolder move would be to add the debt ceiling to the pot. House Democrats might tell Trump: Cooperate with reasonable oversight demands, or out go the lights come autumn.