(Newsroom America) -- Though the full House voted Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, beyond that there isn't much else lawmakers can do to get him to turn over long-sought documents before a court acts. Unless, of course, they wanted to revive a long-dormant power and arrest him.
"The thought is shocking, and conjures up a Hollywood-ready standoff scene between House police and the FBI agents who protect the attorney general. It’s a dramatic and unlikely possibility not least because Congress doesn’t even have a jail any longer. But in theory it could happen," the Washington Times reported Friday.
Not that anyone is seriously considering it. House Speaker John Boehner has flatly ruled it out already.
Nevertheless the process, which is known as inherent contempt, is a well-established precedent, has been confirmed multiple times by the U.S. Supreme Court and remains available to any Congress willing to invoke it.
"The House is scared to death to use the inherent contempt power," Mort Rosenberg, a fellow at the Constitution Project and author of “When Congress Comes Calling," told the paper.
"They’re scared to death because the courts have said … the way the contempt power is used is unseemly. It’s not that it’s unconstitutional, because it’s been upheld by four Supreme Court decisions, but unseemly to have somebody go arrest the attorney general," he said.
So much so it's been 75 years since either chamber has used the authority, though at one time it appeared commonplace.
On Thursday, preceded by a ruling from the nation's highest court which found most of President Obama's signature health care constitutional, the House voted 255-67 to hold Holder in criminal contempt, and 258-95 to pursue a case against him in the courts. Most of the chamber's Democrats walked out in protest, drawing criticism from conservatives who said retreating lawmakers did not even have the courage of their convictions to remain in the chamber and cast a "no" vote.
Still, the votes have done nothing to break the impasse over Holder's refusal to provide documents sought by the House Government Oversight Committee related to the attorney general's involvement in Fast and Furious, a gun-walking operation in which weapons bought in the U.S. were allowed to "walk" across the border into Mexico. Some of the guns have turned up at murder scenes of U.S. border agents including Brian Terry, who was killed in a shoot-out in 2010.
The operation was run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and involving allowing guns to "walk" across the U.S. border into Mexico. The plan was to track the guns to Mexican-based drug cartels, but the agency lost track of most of them.
The next step in the contempt process, then, will be to let the courts decide how to proceed. Analysts say only a court can compel Holder to hand over documents. But, they add, the court process will take time and could run past November's presidential election.
Rosenberg, a former analyst with the Congressional Research Service, said Congress should attempt to impose a fine rather than use its arrest powers.
© 2012 Newsroom America.