House Oversight votes to hold Barr, Ross in contempt over census question

Democrats’ struggles with the administration over census have played into larger battles with White House

House Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., right, and ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, conduct a markup Wednesday on whether to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House Oversight and Reform Committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress as Democrats argued the pair defied subpoenas in a probe of the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The 24-15 vote followed the Justice Department earlier asserting executive privilege to withhold documents sought by the committee. Democrats claim the question would suppress noncitizen participation and would be used to draw Republican-favored maps. The administration says it is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

[It’s not just the citizenship question. 2020 census faces other woes]

House Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings said Congress “must protect the integrity of the census” from potential interference and the administration’s resistance “begs the question, what is being hidden?” Only one Republican on the panel, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, voted with Democrats.

Democrats pointed to the recent revelation in litigation over the citizenship question that plaintiffs have said shows a deceased conservative gerrymandering expert as a potential source of the question. Those documents, the plaintiffs contend, show that the expert suggested using the data from the citizenship question to draw maps based only on citizen population, favoring Republicans.

The Justice Department in a letter to the committee Wednesday reiterated its stance that the panel sought protected documents, including internal communications, and said President Donald Trump had exerted executive privilege over the rest of the documents in the subpoenas.

“Unfortunately, rather than allowing the Department to complete its document production, you have chosen to go forward with an unnecessary and premature contempt vote,” wrote Stephen E. Boyd, an assistant attorney general.

Similarly, the Commerce Department criticized the committee’s decision to move forward with the vote in a letter Wednesday, even as it was prepared to produce more documents.

Flashback: Subpoena scuffle divides Oversight committee

Meanwhile, Oversight ranking member Jim Jordan of Ohio criticized Democrats for using their probe to “muddy the waters” amid a Supreme Court case over the addition of the question, which is due for a decision by the end of the month, in the “desperate hope that it will influence the Supreme Court on this issue.”

In litigation, the administration also argued the government needs the data to enforce the Voting Rights Act and the Commerce Department has the flexibility to add the question.

Ross criticized Democrats in a statement following the vote for their “shameless, weekly attacks on this Administration without consideration for the truth.”

“No matter how much the Department and I cooperate and provide information, the Committee will always twist the facts to suit their own ends,” he said.

A DOJ spokeswoman said in a statement that the committee’s contempt vote “defies logic.” 

“Today’s action by Chairman Cummings and his Committee undermines Congress’s credibility with the American people,” Kerri Kupec said.

Cummings told reporters after the vote that he would consult with House leadership on next steps, including possible court proceedings on contempt.

“We have come to a moment when we are saying to them and throughout the country that we will defend the power of the Congress of the United States Of America,” Cummings said.

Ongoing tussle  

Earlier this month, the committee backed off a subpoena threat for a trio of current and former Commerce Department officials after they agreed to closed-door interviews tied to their role in the addition of the citizenship question. In April, DOJ lawyer John Gore defied a committee subpoena to testify after a spat over whether a department lawyer could be present during his testimony.

The chairman of the subcommittee with oversight of the census, Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin, argued that “all we get from the administration is a middle finger” in response to requests from Congress in the census probe and others.

Democrats’ struggles with the administration in the census investigation have played into larger battles with the White House over the investigation of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Trump’s tax returns and more.

On Tuesday, the full House voted to hold Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn in contempt over their refusal to hand over documents or testify about the Mueller probe. That resolution also allowed Cummings and other committee chairs to proceed with contempt with the support of a group of House leadership rather than requiring votes from the full chamber. 

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