House holds Barr, Ross in contempt over census subpoenas

Vote of 230-198 on a contempt resolution came after weeks of conflict between the administration and House Oversight

House Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings says it was necessary to hold the attorney general and Commerce secretary in contempt because they had stymied a legitimate investigation of the census by the panel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress over the chamber’s probe into the administration’s now-abandoned attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The 230-198 vote on a contempt resolution came after weeks of conflict between the administration and the House Oversight and Reform Committee over subpoenas related to the addition of the question. President Donald Trump dropped it from the census last week after the Supreme Court blocked the plan, calling the administration’s rationale for it “contrived.”

[Trump steers again toward Supreme Court with census citizenship executive order]

Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings argued during floor debate that his panel made “extraordinary efforts” to try to get the documents surrounding the genesis of the citizenship question. The two Cabinet officials “blatantly obstructed” the committee probe and sought to hide Ross’ reasoning for adding the question, the Maryland Democrat said.

“The entire Congress should be insulted by this,” Cummings said.

In a speech against the resolution, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tied the contempt vote to broader disputes with the Trump administration that Democrats have pursued, including calls for impeachment proceedings.

“This majority thinks this is another political opportunity,” the California Republican said.

Barr and Ross criticized the vote in a joint letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which they said the administration provided thousands of documents. They maintained the vote is “degrading the constitutional separation of powers and [the House’s] own institutional integrity.”

Cummings and the committee sought documents protected by privileges, such as internal deliberations, they said, adding that “there is no information to hide; there are institutional integrities to preserve.”

During the investigation, the committee clashed with the Justice Department over questioning attorney John Gore without departmental counsel present. Democrats argued that the administration delayed the investigation, produced thousands of pages of useless documents and blocked witnesses from answering hundreds of questions.

Committee Democrats and one then-Republican and now independent, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, voted last month to find Ross and Barr in contempt over the investigation, after the Justice Department asserted executive privilege over documents the committee sought.

Separately, the committee authorized Cummings to pursue the subpoenaed documents through civil litigation.

It’s unlikely the DOJ will act on the criminal contempt referral, as it would require the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia to act on a criminal referral for his boss. Additionally, Justice Department policy since 1986 has held that the law does not require the U.S. attorney to act on criminal referrals, according to a memo from the Office of Legal Counsel.

A question dropped

Though Trump dropped the question last week, the fight over the citizenship question and citizenship data hasn’t ended.

He issued an executive order directing federal agencies to provide administrative records on citizenship to the Census Bureau, and the Commerce Department has published a plan to provide citizenship data to the states for redistricting purposes.

Opponents of adding the question to the census argued that the administration wanted to depress participation among noncitizens, which could lead to GOP-favored legislative maps down the road.

Cummings argued that Trump’s executive order undermined the administration’s original rationale for adding the citizenship question — better enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

“The Departments of Justice and Commerce have been engaged in a campaign to subvert our laws and the process Congress put in place to maintain the integrity of the census,” he said.

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