House Holds Barr, Ross in Contempt Over Census Document Fight
(Bloomberg) -- The House voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for withholding documents on now-canceled plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The 230-198 vote was largely symbolic because there’s virtually no chance the Justice Department would move in court against the two officials. Still, it’s part of the ongoing conflict between the Democratic-controlled chamber and President Donald Trump.
In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Barr and Ross said the administration has been cooperating with the committee’s questions. The letter says some of the material sought by the Oversight panel is subject to a number of legal privileges, including confidentiality concerns.
“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 letter says.
The vote is one of several escalating tensions between the House of Representatives and the White House.
On Tuesday, the House condemned as “racist” the president’s criticism of four freshman Democrats, all women of color. On Wednesday, the House cleared three Senate-passed measures to block the administration’s plan to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, inviting presidential vetoes.
The fight over the census is finished, though, after a loss at the Supreme Court prompted Trump to drop his effort to add the citizenship question. In a face-saving measure, the president said last week the Census Bureau will instead use existing government records to determine citizenship for at least 90% of the population.
But Democrats, led by Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings, argue the administration continues to withhold documents, emails and testimony on the motives behind the effort to add the question. Trump asserted executive privilege over the material.
Cummings of Maryland said on the House floor before the vote on the resolution, H.Res. 497, that he doesn’t take such contempt action lightly.
“Holding any secretary in criminal contempt of Congress is a serious and sober matter -- one that I have done everything in my power to avoid,” said Cummings. He said that Barr and Ross “blatantly obstructed our ability to do congressional oversight.”
The top Republican on the committee, Jim Jordan of Ohio, countered that both agencies under Barr and Ross have submitted more than 31,000 documents to the committee and made “all kinds of witnesses” available for questioning, including Ross himself.
“This contempt citation is a misuse of one of the most powerful tools available to this body,” added Representative James Comer, a Kentucky Republican.
“We need to know how and why that happened, so that it can never happen again,” said Cummings of Maryland.
House Democrats say the Trump administration’s bid to include the citizenship question was designed to suppress the census response rate of immigrants and non-citizens. That could reduce some states’ number of congressional seats, Electoral College clout and federal funding.
Ross had argued that the aim of the census question was to help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters. But a divided Supreme Court ruled June 27 that Ross’s rationale was “contrived” and couldn’t be squared with evidence about his true motivations.
Cummings acknowledged at a rules committee meeting Monday that he didn’t know when, or if, any legal action on the contempt citation would occur.
“I don’t know what the outcome will be; I wish I did,” he said. But he added, “If we can’t get documents, if the people that come before us won’t answer questions, how can we hold any person accountable?”
The top Republican on the oversight panel, Jim Jordan of Ohio, argued Monday that a contempt vote is premature because the committee is still in talks with the government over the documents.
Jordan noted the House voted in 2012 to hold former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over documents tied to a botched government gun sting operation. That case remained in federal courts for seven years, with a settlement reached this year.
“I don’t recall any beneficial outcome of that after the vote on the floor of the House,” said Jordan on Monday.
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