Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross; Attorney General William Barr (Getty/Salon)

House Democrats vote to hold two of Trump's Cabinet members in criminal contempt over census probe

It's the second time in U.S. history that the full House held a sitting Cabinet official in contempt of Congress


Shira Tarlo
July 18, 2019 2:53PM (UTC)

The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt for refusing to provide documents related the White House's efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census.

Largely along party lines, the 230-198 vote on the contempt resolution came weeks after a feud between the administration and the House Oversight and Reform Committee over subpoenas related to the addition of the question. President Donald Trump ultimately dropped the question last week after the Supreme Court blocked the effort, calling the administration's rationale for adding it "contrived."

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New evidence emerged in May suggesting that the question was designed as part of a Republican ploy to scare immigrants from participating in the survey and thus give an electoral advantage to Republicans and whites. (Congressional seats are distributed based on the results of the decennial survey.) The Trump administration claimed that the question needed to be added to the census in order to better enforce Voting Rights Act.

After the Supreme Court blocked the question from appearing on the census in a 5-4 ruling last month, Trump created uncertainty over what would happen when he insisted efforts to add the question were "absolutely moving forward" in spite of the Supreme Court's ruling and public statements from the Departments of Commerce and Justice indicating the question would not be included.

But at the end of last week, Trump abruptly retreated, announcing he would instead order government agencies to provide the Commerce Department with records that could determine the numbers of citizens and non-citizens in the country without directly asking census-takers.

Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings claimed during floor debate Wednesday that his panel made "extraordinary efforts" to try to obtain the documents surrounding the addition of the citizenship question. The two Cabinet officials "blatantly obstructed" the panel's probe and sought to conceal "the real reason" Ross wanted to add the question, he alleged.

"The entire Congress should be insulted by this," Cummings said.

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Four Democrats broke with their party and voted against the resolution — Reps. Anthony Brindisi of New York, Jared Golden of Maine, Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Jefferson Van Drew of New Jersey. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, now an independent after leaving the Republican Party last month, supported the resolution.

The Departments of Commerce and Justice pushed back forcefully against the contempt vote, claiming they have been working in good-faith to respond to requests from the panel and have already produced thousands of documents.

Barr and Ross criticized the vote in a joint letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in which they said they "strongly oppose" the resolution and urged her to delay the vote so they could continue working through a "constitutionally mandated accommodation process" toward a compromise "in good-faith."

"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.

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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 dismissed the floor vote as a "PR stunt" and argued that Democrats "made every attempt to ascribe evil motivations to everyday functions of government."

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Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupec defended the department’s efforts, saying that the vote to hold Barr in contempt "marks a new low for Speaker Pelosi's House of Representatives."

"This vote is nothing more than a political stunt," Kupec said. "While the House plays games, the department will continue its critical work of pursuing justice and ensuring safety for all Americans."

The vote came one day after the House approved a resolution condemning Trump's spate of "racist comments" directed at a group of newly elected congresswomen of color.

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Wednesday's contempt move is guaranteed to escalate tensions between the White House and House Democrats over the issue of congressional oversight. It marks only the second time in U.S. history that the full House voted to hold a sitting Cabinet official in contempt of Congress. In 2012, former Attorney General Eric Holder became the first after the Republican-led House voted to hold him in contempt for refusing to turn over documents related to the Operation Fast and Furious gun-running investigation.

During Wednesday’s floor debate, Republicans blasted the Democrats' decision to hold Barr and Ross as merely a political show.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a member of the Oversight Committee, said on the House floor: "Holding someone in contempt of Congress is one of the most serious and formal actions our committee can take. It should not be used as a political tool to generate press as part of an election year witch-hunt."

"We may be in July, but it's Groundhog Day all over again," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said. McCarthy then pointed to Wednesday's contempt vote, a Democratic impeachment resolution against Trump and Tuesday's resolution condemning Trump's racist remarks as he argued that Democrats were focused with passing measures "attacking Trump" instead of "kitchen-table" issues, which he claimed concern voters most.

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Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, also criticized the vote, saying: "Secretary Ross and Attorney General Barr are doing their jobs, so what's their reward? Democrats are going to hold them in contempt."

Democrats, meanwhile, argued that the administration's efforts to add a citizenship question was part of a Republican tactic to scare immigrants from participating in the decennial survey and to engineer a population undercount in Democratic-leaning communities with large immigrant populations.

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., called the push to add the citizenship question "disturbing," arguing "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 on the House floor.

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Rep. Jamie B. Raskin, D-Md., said the contempt resolution 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. "This is about congressional power."

The House Oversight Committee authorized Cummings to issue subpoenas for a deposition of John Gore, the principal deputy assistant attorney general, and to Barr and Ross for documents related to the administration's efforts to add a citizenship question to the census.

Ross has turned down requests from the panel to testify about the citizenship question, and the Justice Department said it would not comply with the subpoena for Gore to testify about the question.

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Wednesday's vote is the latest effort by House Democrats to force the White House to submit to congressional oversight. Last month, the House authorized Congress to go to court to enforce subpoenas for Barr and former White House counsel Donald McGahn.


Shira Tarlo

Contact Shira Tarlo at shira.tarlo@salon.com. Follow @shiratarlo.

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