House panel votes to hold Barr, Ross in contempt of Congress

Chris Strohm and Billy House
House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., considers whether to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents related to the Trump administration's decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 12, 2019.

A House panel voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for withholding documents on plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Earlier Wednesday, President Donald Trump asserted executive privilege over the material.

The Oversight and Reform Committee’s 24-15 vote Wednesday for the civil contempt resolution gives Democratic Chairman Elijah Cummings the option to file a lawsuit to enforce the panel’s subpoenas for the documents.

Republican Mark Meadows of North Carolina warned colleagues their vote was “a significant moment in history” in holding two cabinet-level officials in contempt. Cummings said he didn’t disagree.

“Nobody is trying to be harmful to our attorney general. It’s not about him” or the Commerce secretary, said Cummings of Maryland. “It’s about our country.”

“The Constitution gives Congress the responsibility and the authority to ensure that the census is working as it was intended,” Cummings said. “We must protect the integrity of the census, and we must stand up for Congress’ authority under the Constitution to conduct meaningful oversight.”

The chairman didn't disclose when he may file a legal action, saying he'll consult with Democratic leaders on the next steps.

Ross, in a statement, called the committee’s action “shameless” and said Democrats “aren’t going to let the facts get in the way of their own concocted stories.”

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement: "The committee’s attempt to define the Department of Justice’s good-faith cooperation as contempt’ defies logic."

Response rate

Congressional Democrats are pursuing what they say is evidence that the Trump administration’s bid to include the citizenship question was designed to suppress the response rate to the census of immigrants and non-citizens. That could reduce some states’ number of congressional seats, Electoral College clout and federal funding.

Before the Oversight panel vote, Trump asserted executive privilege over documents concerning plans to add a citizenship question to the census, including the material sought by the Oversight Committee.

“These documents are protected from disclosure by the deliberative process, attorney-client communications, or attorney work product components of executive privilege,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote in a letter Wednesday to Cummings. “In addition, the president has made a protective assertion of executive privilege over the remainder of the subpoenaed documents.”

The move was just the latest effort to stymie and frustrate efforts by House Democrats to investigate actions by the Trump administration.

But the Democratic-controlled House is firing back. The chamber voted Tuesday to authorize a lawsuit against Barr in a separate matter, for refusing to give the Judiciary Committee redacted parts of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The House also approved a speedier process for committee chairmen such as Cummings to file a lawsuit to enforce subpoenas. Under the plan, they would only need to be green-lighted by a panel led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

What’s contempt of Congress and executive privilege?

Ross has denied assertions that the citizenship question was inspired by efforts to suppress census participation by immigrants, including those in the country legally, who may tend to vote for Democrats. The underlying issue is now before the Supreme Court.

Trump told reporters at the White House that he feels strongly the census should ask Americans whether they’re citizens.

“That doesn’t sound so good to me” if the question can’t be included, he said Wednesday during a meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda. “It’s ridiculous, I think it’s totally ridiculous that we would have a census without asking.”

Ross’s role in the 2020 census has come under Democratic scrutiny because he and other Commerce Department officials asserted multiple times that the decision to include the citizenship question stemmed solely from a Justice Department request in December 2017 to aid enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Barr additionally is accused of ordering Justice Department official John Gore to defy a subpoena for his testimony.

The Justice Department said the Oversight Committee abandoned efforts to reach an accommodation by going forward “with an unnecessary and premature contempt vote.”