The House voted tonight to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt of Congress for their refusal to turn over key documents related to the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The citations for two cabinet officials, approved 230 to 198, will breathe new life into a dispute that has touched all three branches of government over why Trump administration officials pushed to ask census respondents if they were American citizens and what that question’s effect would be.
Democrats investigating the issue believe that the documents and testimony being shielded would confirm that the administration’s long-stated rationale for collecting the data — to better enforce the Voting Rights Act — was merely a cover for a politically motivated attempt to eliminate noncitizens from population statistics used to allocate political representation, diminishing Democratic power.
The Supreme Court hinted at that theory last month in a ruling about the citizenship question, when it rejected the administration’s stated reason for adding it as “contrived.”
And in an unusual twist, President Trump himself all but confirmed those suspicions this month when he said of the citizenship question, “You need it for Congress, for districting.”
Last week, he announced his government would give up the effort in light of the court’s decision.
Democrats said today that their investigation would continue regardless, in an effort to vindicate Congress’s oversight authority and potentially neuter future attempts to discourage participation by noncitizens in the census.
“It is bigger than the census. It is about protecting the integrity of the Congress of the United States of America,” Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the Oversight and Reform Committee chairman, said as he whipped up support on the House floor. “We need to understand how and why the Trump administration tried to add a question based on pretext so that we can consider reforms to ensure that this never happens again.”
The Commerce Department, the Justice Department and the White House all swiftly issued statements condemning the vote as a bad-faith smear that ignored administration officials efforts to cooperate.
Wednesday’s contempt vote formally authorized the oversight panel to take Barr and Ross to federal court to seek judicial enforcement of subpoenas for the material in question.
A lawsuit is expected in the coming weeks, and the administration has maintained it is on firm legal footing in its position.
It also leveled a stinging personal rebuke to Barr and Ross by formally referring them to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.
There is no real risk the department will pursue the case — Barr is the head of the Justice Department — but only once before has Congress held in contempt a sitting member of a presidential cabinet: Eric H. Holder Jr., President Barack Obama’s first attorney general.
The United States used to include a citizenship question on all census forms, but since 1950, it has appeared only on a longer, more detailed questionnaire sent at random to a small number of households and not on the forms that most residents receive.
The debate over the citizenship question is not an academic one.
Government experts have estimated that asking respondents their citizenship status would scare many immigrants from responding to the census, which counts all people living in the United States, not just citizens.
It could ultimately result in an undercount of about 6.5 million people, they say.
States rely on raw population data, rather than eligible voters, to draw House districts and to determine access to federal social welfare programs.
Democrats were fearful that a significant undercount could reduce their representation and affect how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending were distributed.
Attribution:The New York Times