House panel votes to hold Barr and Ross in contempt over 2020 census citizenship question

Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA)
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A House panel on Wednesday voted to hold Atty. Gen. William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with subpoenas seeking information about the Trump administration’s decision to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

It came hours after President Trump asserted executive privilege over the materials House Democrats are seeking.

The dispute comes ahead of the 2020 census, in which the Trump administration hopes to ask about the citizenship of members in every household. The citizenship question — not included on all census forms since 1950 — has strong implications for California, where officials fear it will undercount the state’s immigrant population and result in fewer congressional seats.


Democrats worry the question will intimidate noncitizens into not responding to the constitutionally mandated query of residents, pointing to documents that appear to prove their suspicions. Some estimates predict that the citizenship question could have a chilling effect on the census response rate by as much as 5.8 percentage points.

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform is the second committee to vote to hold Barr in contempt of Congress. The House Judiciary Committee voted last month to do the same over his refusal to turn over the unredacted report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Democrats say the Trump administration made the census change for political reasons and that Ross misled lawmakers by claiming it was solely to help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said Ross was “aggressively pressing his staff to add the citizenship questions ... at the urging of the White House.”

His committee has demanded interviews and documents that would show the administration’s internal deliberations.

“I want to know why this question was magically added after we have seen that a political operative knew and detailed an intent to intimidate racial and immigrant communities for a partisan purpose, saying this will hurt Democrats and help Republicans,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).


The Justice Department said in a letter Wednesday morning that the documents Democrats want are protected by attorney-client privilege.

Ross has denied any political motivations for adding the question.

The committee and Justice Department officials had been negotiating the release of some of the documents, according to Cummings and a letter that Assistant Atty. Gen. Stephen F. Boyd sent to the committee Wednesday morning. Boyd chastised the committee for putting an end to the negotiations by “your insistence upon scheduling a premature contempt vote.”

Cummings called the White House’s executive privilege claims “another example of the administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’ constitutionally mandated responsibilities.”

Trump on Wednesday defended the citizenship question, saying it’s “totally ridiculous” to do a census without it.

“When you have a census and you’re not allowed to talk about whether somebody’s a citizen or not, that doesn’t sound so good to me,” he said.

The last census to include a citizenship question for all households was in 1950.

The House Oversight Committee spent hours on Wednesday sparring over the inquiry, with Republicans defending the question and the administration’s decision to assert privilege.


“This is the legislative branch of government, not the harass-and-attack branch of government, and this committee should not succumb to the level of vitriol and division that we witness across this nation,” said Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.).

Republican lawmakers accused Democrats of using their subpoenas to try to influence a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging the citizenship question. The justices are expected to issue a decision on whether the question is legally valid before the court’s term ends later this month.

One Republican, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, joined Democrats in the contempt resolution. He is the only Republican who has called for an impeachment inquiry into Trump.

Wednesday’s contempt vote was just the latest in the ongoing battle over subpoenas between the Democrat-led House and the Trump administration.

On Tuesday, the full House voted to authorize the Judiciary Committee to go to court to seek enforcement of separate subpoenas against Barr and former White House Counsel Donald McGahn related to the Mueller report. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) indicated the House won’t actually go to court if the Justice Department turns over more information related to the report.

Similarly, it is unclear whether the contempt citation approved by the House Oversight Committee would go before the full House for approval. Democrats have tried to use the contempt citations as leverage to get the administration to respond to their demands for documents.


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