House votes to hold Barr and Ross in criminal contempt of Congress

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Attorney General William Barr speaks about the census as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross listens during an event with President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House, Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Democratic-controlled House on Wednesday voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt of Congress for failing to comply with subpoenas about the origins of a controversial citizenship question on the 2020 census. 

The measure passed by a vote of 230 to 198, with four Democrats joining all Republicans in voting against the resolution. One independent, Rep. Justin Amash, joined Democrats in voting for the measure.

House Oversight Committee chairman Elijah Cummings, who spearhead the drive, said he did not take this decision “lightly.” The Maryland Democrat said he wanted to avoid holding cabinet-level officials in contempt of Congress — something he called a “serious and somber matter.”

“But in this case, the Attorney General and Secretary Ross have blatantly obstructed our ability to do congressional oversight into the real reason Secretary Ross was trying — for the first time in 70 years — to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census,” Cummings said Wednesday. 

The White House immediately blasted the move, calling it “yet another lawless attempt to harass the President and his Administration.” The Justice Department also slammed the effort. 

“Holding the Attorney General in contempt for working in good-faith with Congress marks a new low for Speaker Pelosi’s House of Representatives,” Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec wrote in a statement. “This vote is nothing more than a political stunt. While the House plays games, the Department will continue its critical work of pursuing justice and ensuring safety for all Americans.”

Ross, meanwhile, called the contempt vote a “PR stunt” that “further demonstrates their unending quest to generate headlines instead of operating in good faith with our Department.”

Just before the House was to vote, Barr and Ross had urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a letter to postpone it.

“By taking this action, the House is both unnecessarily undermining inter-branch comity and degrading the constitutional separation of powers and its own institutional integrity,” Barr and Ross said.

The vote follows the president’s announcement that he will not be adding the question to the upcoming census questionnaire and instead plans to explore other avenues to gain information about respondents’ citizenship status. 

The Supreme Court handed down its decision late last month, effectively blocking the administration from adding the question, ruling the government had failed to provide adequate justification for the question. Multiple legal battles over the question, however, are still being waged in lower courts.   

The House Oversight Committee approved a resolution by a vote of 24-15 to hold Barr and Ross in contempt after they continued to refuse to turn over documents related to the controversial question.

The Justice Department, in response, said it would ask Mr. Trump to invoke executive privilege over the census documents if the committee decided to proceed with its contempt vote.  

Democrats had criticized the administration’s push to add the question in recent months, noting the question would likely discourage immigrants from answering the census, which in turn could result in an undercount and subsequent reduction in the number of congressional seats allocated in primarily Democratic states. Ross claimed the move to include the question was a response to a request from the Justice Department for better citizenship data to assist in its enforcement of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

But weeks before the Supreme Court ruled on the census question, information emerged in one of the legal challenges to the census question revealing that a GOP political consultant, Thomas Hofeller, recently deceased, had concluded that the inclusion of the citizenship question would allow the drawing of political maps to benefit “Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.” According to plaintiffs, he then pushed the Trump transition team to add the question and ghostwrote a portion of a draft of the letter the Justice Department sent the Commerce Department in late 2017.

The revelation contradicted Ross’ claim that the citizenship data would be used to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. Democrats sought the documents related to the decision-making behind the proposed change to the census, but it did not receive them.

Barr affirmed that the 2020 census will not include a question on citizenship, explaining that “the problem is that any new decision would be subject to immediate challenge,” which would cause a delay in the census.

In the meantime, Mr. Trump has ordered all federal government agencies and departments to provide data they have about citizens and non-citizens to the Commerce Department.

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