The House of Representatives voted to hold Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress over their refusal to comply with subpoenas related to the effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The 230-198 vote is a step toward allowing the House to go to court to get the records lawmakers are seeking. Both Ross and Barr will also be referred to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, but the department, which is headed by Barr, is unlikely to pursue that.
The Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration from adding the question late last month. Although the administration officially said it needed the question on the census to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court said that rationale seemed “contrived.” Trump announced last week he would ask the Census Bureau to use existing government records to collect citizenship question.
Still, Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee want to know why the Justice and Commerce departments wanted to add the question. They are seeking documents from both agencies that could help them get to the bottom of the matter. Trump exercised executive privilege over the documents in June.
Emails made public in litigation showed that Thomas Hofeller, a GOP redistricting guru, may have helped add the question. In a 2015 memo, Hofeller said a census citizenship question would pave the way for redistricting that would benefit Republicans and non-Hispanic whites. Trump said last week that citizenship data would be useful for redistricting.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, pointed to those comments Wednesday and said they underscored that the Voting Rights Act justification was a pretext.
“The departments of Justice and Commerce have been engaged in a campaign to subvert our laws and the processes Congress put in place to maintain the integrity of the Census,” Cummings said. ”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 does not happen again.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham dismissed the contempt vote in a statement Wednesday, saying both the Commerce and Justice departments had produced over 30,000 records to Congress.
“Today’s vote by Speaker Pelosi and House Democrats to hold Attorney General Barr and Secretary Ross in contempt is ridiculous and yet another lawless attempt to harass the President and his Administration,” she said. “Instead of accepting the numerous good-faith efforts of accommodation the Departments have made, Democrats continue to demand documents that are subject to executive privilege. House Democrats know they have no legal right to these documents, but their shameful and cynical politics know no bounds.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec called the vote a “political stunt” in a statement Wednesday night.
“Holding the Attorney General in contempt for working in good-faith with Congress marks a new low for Speaker Pelosi’s House of Representatives. This vote is nothing more than a political stunt,” she said.
Ross also released a statement Wednesday night saying his department had complied with requests for information. He called the contempt vote a “PR stunt.”
“It is an unfortunate fact that there are some who would like nothing more than to see this Administration fail whatever the cost to the country may be. Preferring to play political games rather than help lead the country, they have made every attempt to ascribe evil motivations to everyday functions of government,” Ross said.
This article has been updated with comment from the Justice Department.