WASHINGTON — The House voted Wednesday evening to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt of Congress for their refusal to turn over key documents related to the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The citations for two Cabinet officials, approved 230-198, will breathe new life into a dispute that has touched all three branches of government over why Trump administration officials pushed to ask census respondents if they were US citizens and what that question’s impact would be.
Democrats investigating the issue believe that the documents and testimony being shielded would confirm that the administration’s long-stated rationale for collecting the data — to better enforce the Voting Rights Act — was merely a cover for a politically motivated attempt to eliminate noncitizens from population statistics used to allocate political representation, diminishing Democratic power.
The Supreme Court hinted at that theory last month in a ruling about the citizenship question, when it rejected the administration’s stated reason for adding the question as “contrived.” And in an unusual twist, President Donald Trump himself all but confirmed those suspicions this month when he said of the citizenship question, “You need it for Congress, for districting.” Last week he announced his government would give up the effort in light of the high court’s decision.
Democrats said Wednesday that their investigation would continue regardless, in an effort to vindicate Congress’ oversight authority and potentially neuter future attempts to discourage participation by noncitizens in the census.
“It is bigger than the census. It is about protecting the integrity of the Congress of the United States of America,” Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the Oversight and Reform Committee chairman, said as he whipped up support on the House floor. “We need to understand how and why the Trump administration tried to add a question based on pretext so that we can consider reforms to ensure that this never happens again.”
The Commerce Department, the Justice Department and the White House all swiftly issued statements condemning the vote as a bad-faith smear that ignored administration officials efforts to cooperate. Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, called the action a “ridiculous and yet another lawless attempt to harass the president and his administration.” She added, “their shameful and cynical politics know no bounds.”
Wednesday’s contempt vote formally authorized the oversight committee to take Barr and Ross to federal court to seek judicial enforcement of subpoenas for the material in question. A lawsuit is expected in the coming weeks, and the administration has maintained it is on firm legal footing in its position.
It also leveled a stinging personal rebuke to Barr and Ross by formally referring them to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. There is no real risk the department will pursue the case — Barr is the head of the Justice Department — but only once before has Congress held in contempt a sitting member of a presidential Cabinet: Eric Holder, President Barack Obama’s first attorney general.
The Justice and Commerce departments maintain that in this case they have sought to fully cooperate within legal bounds with the oversight committee’s requests. Democrats, they argue, are more interested in a political clash that can attract media attention and embarrass the administration than they are in actual fact-finding and prematurely abandoned the negotiating table.
Barr and Ross dispatched a last-minute letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California on Wednesday urging her to call off the vote. The materials the committee had demanded, they said, would require violation of legal privileges and executive privilege.
“The key remaining issue is how the departments and the committee will address the material that is protected by privileges that have been repeatedly affirmed by the courts,” they wrote. “There is no information to hide; there are institutional integrities to preserve.”
Republicans have backed them up at each step, arguing Democrats are abusing oversight powers to contest a reasonable policy goal. But Democrats easily defeated their efforts to kill the contempt citations and replace them with a bill requiring the inclusion of a citizenship question by law.
“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? All because they don’t want a simple question on the census,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top ranking Republican on the Oversight Committee. “This resolution is ridiculous, and we should vote it down.”
It is not unusual for Congresses and White Houses of opposing parties to face off over oversight demands, haggling over documents and witnesses. But there is scant precedent for the volume and intensity of the disputes between this Democratic House and Trump, whose administration has taken a dim view of Congress’ authority to compel executive branch cooperation.
The House Judiciary Committee, for instance, has been locked in a dispute with the Justice Department and White House over access to evidence underlying Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference and access to key government officials who served as witnesses to the former special counsel. It may soon spawn additional contempt votes and court action.
And an effort by the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee to obtain Trump’s personal and business tax returns has already been redirected to federal court after the Treasury Department refused to comply with requests and subpoenas.
Wednesday would be the first time the House actually voted to hold a government official in contempt in one of the fights. The Judiciary Committee recommended that the House do so with Barr in the dispute over Mueller’s evidence. But the two sides struck a last-minute deal to avoid a formal contempt vote and the House merely voted to authorize court action to enforce the subpoena.
The only other direct precedent for Tuesday’s vote was in 2012, when Republicans then in control of the House held Holder in contempt in connection with requests for information about the botched “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking investigation. Republicans ended up suing the Obama administration in the case and ultimately prevailed, but the case took years to wind its way thought the courts and could have gone on longer if the Obama administration had continued to appeal.
The outcome in the census case could take just as long, potentially outlasting Trump’s term unless the two sides reach an agreement.