By Felicia Sonmez
The House on Wednesday voted to hold Attorney General William P. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt for failing to provide documents related to the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, escalating the fight between Democrats and the White House over congressional oversight.
The 230-to-198 vote along party lines came one day after the House approved a resolution condemning President Trump’s racist remarks aimed at four minority congresswomen.
After a string of legal defeats, Trump last week abruptly retreated from his efforts to add the question to the census, announcing that he will instead order federal agencies to provide the Commerce Department with records on the numbers of citizens and noncitizens in the country.
But lawmakers continue to demand answers about the motivations behind the administration’s 19-month effort to ask about citizenship status on the decennial survey. In May, new evidence emerged suggesting that the question was crafted specifically to give an electoral advantage to Republicans and whites. The Trump administration has said it needs the information to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Barr and Ross wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) earlier Wednesday saying they “strongly oppose” the resolution and asked her to postpone the vote so they could continue working through a legally mandated process toward a compromise.
“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,” the two Cabinet members wrote.
In a statement, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham called the vote “ridiculous” and said it was “yet another lawless attempt to harass the president and his administration.”
“House Democrats know they have no legal right to these documents, but their shameful and cynical politics know no bounds,” she said.
Ross said in a statement that the vote was a “PR stunt” and that Democrats “made every attempt to ascribe evil motivations to everyday functions of government.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec defended the department’s efforts and said that “holding the Attorney General in contempt for working in good-faith with Congress marks a new low for Speaker Pelosi’s House of Representatives.”
The impact of the contempt vote is largely symbolic. Those found in criminal contempt are normally referred to the Justice Department for prosecution; in this instance, the Justice Department would not prosecute itself.
During Wednesday’s floor debate, Republicans cast Democrats’ holding of the vote as merely a political show.
“We may be in July, but it’s Groundhog Day all over again,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said. Pointing to the contempt vote, a Democratic resolution on impeachment and Tuesday’s resolution condemning Trump’s racist remarks aimed at four minority Democratic congresswomen, McCarthy said Democrats are consumed with passing measures “attacking Trump” while voters are more concerned with kitchen-table issues.
Rep. Carol Miller (R-W.Va.) defended the administration’s efforts to inquire about citizenship, contending that asking such a question is “standard operating procedure” in other countries, including Canada and Australia. “Knowing who is in our country should not be controversial,” she said.
Some Democrats responded by arguing that the administration’s efforts were part of a broader pattern of seeking to dilute the power of minority voters. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said the push for the citizenship question was “disturbing” because “it’s in a context of voter suppression that’s all across America.”
“Asking the citizenship question on the census is part and parcel of that scheme to discourage minority voting in America, to frighten immigrant communities,” Connolly said.
Others, such as Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), said the battle was about congressional oversight of the executive branch, noting that the Trump administration had “already lost” the policy battle in the courts.
“They lost because their justification was ‘contrived,’ according to Chief Justice Roberts,” Raskin said, adding: “This is about congressional power.”
Trump’s order came after the Supreme Court ruled that the administration cannot move forward on adding the question without providing a solid justification for its plan.
In their letter, Barr and Ross wrote that their departments had made “significant efforts” to accommodate Congress’s requests, and they disagreed that they had tried to obstruct lawmakers’ inquiry. They claimed that the “limited materials still at issue are subject to a number of legal privileges that have been upheld in the pending litigation, as well as the president’s assertion of executive privilege.”
“There is no information to hide; there are institutional integrities to preserve,” they wrote.
In April, the Oversight Committee authorized its chairman, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), to issue subpoenas for a deposition of John Gore, principal deputy assistant attorney general, and to Barr and Ross for documents related to the 2020 Census decision. But the Justice Department said it would not comply with the subpoena for Gore to testify about the question, and the administration has vowed to stonewall all House subpoenas.
In an interview Wednesday morning on Fox Business Network, Ross maintained that the administration will push ahead on gathering citizenship data through other means.
“Well, I think it’s just gamesmanship on their part,” he said of the continued opposition by Democrats. “They know we’re going to come much closer to the answer than we ever have before, because with the president’s executive order, we’re having much better access to federal documents than we ever had before.”
Wednesday’s vote is only the latest attempt by House Democrats to force the administration to submit to congressional oversight. Last month, the House voted to seek court enforcement of subpoenas for Barr and former White House counsel Donald McGahn.
A move by the House to hold a sitting attorney general in contempt of Congress is rare but not unprecedented: In 2012, the Republican-led House voted to hold then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt over his failure to provide material in the probe of Operation Fast and Furious, a federal government program targeting gun trafficking by Mexican cartels.
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