House will vote ‘soon’ to hold Barr, Ross in criminal contempt over citizenship question

Pelosi announces plans for full House vote in dear colleague letter, also outlining legislative steps to protect migrants

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent a letter to colleagues Monday saying the House will “soon” vote to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with subpoenas seeking documents explaining the rationale for adding a citizenship question to the census. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House will “soon” vote to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary William Ross in contempt of Congress for defying subpoenas for documents explaining the administration’s rationale for wanting to add a citizenship question to the census, Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter on Monday.

The Oversight and Reform Committee last month approved a contempt resolution against Barr and Ross that included language to refer the matter to the U.S. attorney in Washington for possible criminal charges, as well as authorize the pursuit of a lawsuit.

The Justice and Commerce departments have provided the Oversight Committee with some documents on the citizenship question while withholding others over claims of executive privilege.

The House, in a floor vote the day before the Oversight contempt markup, already gave all committees the authority to file lawsuits to enforce their subpoenas. 

That means a floor vote is not needed for Democrats to try to get a court order forcing Barr and Ross to hand over the outstanding documents they requested.

The contempt resolution Pelosi plans to bring to the floor will be a criminal referral, according to a House leadership aide. 

Democrats have thus far avoided criminal contempt referrals as a mechanism to try to force compliance with subpoenas because they know that a U.S. attorney who reports to Barr is unlikely to pursue charges against him or other administration officials. 

But doing so over the citizenship question issue will provide Democrats with an opportunity to have a public debate and vote surrounding the rationale for surveying the country’s population on their citizenship status.

Pelosi at an event in California Monday referred to the citizenship question as an effort by President Donald Trump to “make America white again,” a play off the president’s 2016 campaign slogan, “make America great again.”

Democrats’ interest in learning the “real reason” — as Pelosi phrased it — that the administration wants to add the citizenship question has only increased since Trump overruled Justice and Commerce officials who decided to cease the effort after the Supreme Court ruled their rationale was insufficient. 

The Justice Department had been arguing that the government needs the data to enforce the Voting Rights Act, but is now working, per Trump’s instructions, to provide a new case on why the question is needed. 

Barr told reporters in South Carolina Monday that the administration would unveil its new legal approach in the next day or two.

Legislation to help migrants

In addition to the announcement on the contempt vote, Pelosi used her latest letter to colleagues — dispatches she sends regularly to update House Democrats on messaging, legislative courses of action, etc. — to discuss the need for Democrats to continue to work to improve conditions at migrant detention facilities. 

“While Senator McConnell still refuses to help the children suffering in these deplorable conditions, we must lead a Battle Cry across America to protect the children,” the California Democrat wrote, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Legislation is necessary, and members visiting the border have made several suggestions as we move forward.”

Pelosi then listed the suggestions, many of which were components of the House-passed version of a border supplemental funding bill that was rejected in the Senate. The House was forced to pass the Senate version of the border supplemental amid divisions in their own caucus and a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate for that measure. 

The Senate bill, which Trump signed into law, left out several provisions House Democrats wanted to add to help improve standards of care for migrants in custody.

Pelosi wrote to Trump last week asking he take administrative action to implement three of those Democratic priorities: medical, nutrition and hygiene standards for individuals in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection; a 90-day limitation on how long children can stay in influx shelters; and agreement to notify Congress within 24 hours if a child dies while in government care.

Vice President Mike Pence had told Pelosi during negotiations while Trump was out of the country that the administration would implement the latter two, according to a source familiar with their conversation. 

The speaker’s letter Monday acknowledged that Trump has yet to respond to her request. And she mentioned the three priorities she outlined to Trump among the legislative actions Democrats want to take. 

The other legislation Pelosi mentioned that members want to pass includes a bill by Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar to provide more accountability standards for the Department of Homeland Security and ban family separations. She also cited the need for a multi-agency migrant processing center pilot program for families and unaccompanied children, a provision that had been in the House version of the border supplemental.

Pelosi’s letter did not explicitly promise a vote on those legislative suggestions but she did imply that Democrats will take continued action.

“In both the case of the census and the abhorrent conditions for children and families at the border, we must hold the Trump administration and the GOP accountable,” she said. 

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