Cen­sus bat­tle es­ca­lates

House panel’s con­tempt vote fol­lows as­ser­tion of ex­ec­u­tive priv­i­lege

The Dallas Morning News - - FRONT PAGE - By JEN­NIFER HABERKORN

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.

‘Blanket de­fi­ance’

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.’ ”

J. Scott Applewhite/the As­so­ci­ated Press

“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.

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