Census battle escalates
House panel’s contempt vote follows assertion of executive privilege
WASHINGTON — A House panel on Wednesday voted to hold Attorney General 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. The move came hours after President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege over the materials House Democrats are seeking.
The Trump administration hopes to ask about the citizenship of members in every household during the 2020 census.
Democrats are concerned that the question would intimidate noncitizens into not responding to the census. Some estimates predict that the citizenship question could have a chilling effect, reducing the census response rate by as much as 5.8 percentage points.
The House Committee on Over
sight 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 on Russian meddling in the 2016 election by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Democrats say that 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 Cummings, DMD., 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.
“We must protect the integrity of the census and stand up for Congress’ authority under the Constitution to conduct meaningful oversight,” Cummings said in explaining the need for a contempt vote.
The Justice Department said in a letter Wednesday that the documents Democrats want are protected by attorneyclient 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 Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd sent to the committee Wednesday. 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.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Trump expressed frustration with the intensity of the House oversight.
“Every day, they’re going to be going more and more, after, after,” he said in the Oval Office. “It’s the only way they think they can win the election.”
‘Harass and attack’
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 harassandattack 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 battle over subpoenas between the Democratled 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, DN.Y., indicated the House won’t actually go to court if the Justice Department turns over more information related to the report.
Similarly, it was 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.
Up to the court
Three federal judges have struck down the census question, saying Ross’ actions in adding it were in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
The Supreme Court heard the case April 23. Evidence in the case concluded with oral arguments that day, and it appeared that the conservative majority seemed inclined to agree with the government that the decision to add the question was within the authority of the commerce secretary.
Last month, new evidence emerged suggesting that the citizenship question was crafted specifically to give an electoral advantage to Republicans and whites. The evidence was found in the files of the prominent Republican redistricting strategist Thomas Hofeller after his death in August.
According to lawyers challenging the question, the evidence reveals that Hofeller “played a significant role in orchestrating the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 Decennial Census to create a structural electoral advantage for, in his own words, ‘Republicans and Nonhispanic Whites.’ ”
“We must protect the integrity of the census and stand up for Congress’ authority under the Constitution to conduct meaningful oversight,” House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, DMD., said in explaining the need for Wednesday’s contempt vote.
The vote targeted Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.