A House panel voted today to hold two members of President Trump’s Cabinet in contempt for defying subpoenas for census documents, further escalating multiple fights between Congress and the administration.
The Oversight and Reform Committee voted 24-15 to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for refusing to provide documents about how and why a citizenship question was added to the 2020 census.
The Judiciary Committee had already found Barr in contempt for defying a subpoena for the full report from special counsel Robert Mueller.
Trump asserted executive privilege today to keep secret documents about the citizenship question secret.
Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said in a letter today that Trump was asserting executive privilege to prevent the release of key documents, including a Dec. 12, 2017, letter to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Trump also protectively asserted executive privilege over the rest of the subpoenaed documents, while officials determine whether they should be kept secret, Boyd said.
“It appears to be another example of the administration’s blanket defiance,” said Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who noted the bipartisan subpoenas were issued more than two months ago. “This begs the question: what is being hidden?”
But Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the committee, said Democrats were moving urgently on the contempt vote in an attempt to influence the Supreme Court, which is considering a case dealing with the census question.
“This is just another attempt to muddy the waters,” Jordan said. “It’s not what we should be doing.”
The Constitution calls for the census to count everyone in the country every decade.
The administration’s decision to ask people whether they are citizens in 2020 has been contentious because of Democratic concerns it could discourage participation.
The census is important because it counts the population once a decade to apportion seats in Congress, providing figures to map House districts and contributing to enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by showing the Justice Department where minorities live.
The population figures are also used throughout government to divide billions in federal spending each year.
The Supreme Court, which has called the census “the linchpin of the federal statistical system,” heard a case about the citizenship question in April and a ruling is expected by the end of June.
The court will basically decide whether Ross had ample reason to ask about citizenship, followed acceptable procedures and acted within the bounds of the Constitution.
“It’s going to intimidate and discourage,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va. “This isn’t just a fight between the executive and legislative branch. This is about the future of our democratic process.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said Cummings had tried to negotiate a compromise for the documents, but was thwarted by the administration.
“All we get from the administration is a middle finger,” Raskin said.
Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the committee’s vote undermined the Democratic-led committee’s credibility with the American people.
“The committee’s attempt to define the Department of Justice’s good-faith cooperation as ‘contempt’ defies logic,” Kupec said. “Despite the committee’s political games, the department will remain focused on its critical work safeguarding the American people and upholding the rule of law.”
Ross, in a statement, accused the committee of “flagrant political posturing.”
“This is a disappointing day for Congress and our country,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the citizenship question threatened “to put a chilling effect on us getting an accurate count.”
But Trump has said he will defy subpoenas because the multiple House inquiries amount to presidential harassment.
The census fight followed a House vote Tuesday to authorize lawsuits to enforce subpoenas against Barr for the full Mueller report and underlying documents, and against former White House counsel Don McGahn.
The House also agreed to ease the approval of lawsuits to enforce subpoenas.
Traditionally, the full House voted to authorize lawsuits, but the resolution adopted in a party-line vote allowed a five-member leadership group controlled by Democrats to approve lawsuits.
The House already is locked in a pair of court fights with Trump over subpoenas for his financial records.
Two federal judges rejected Trump’s efforts to block the subpoenas, and the president has appealed, arguing that “Congress is simply not allowed to conduct law-enforcement investigations of the president.”