House Oversight Votes to Hold Barr, Ross in Contempt

Published on June 12, 2019 by Athena Pallas

In the latest move in the battle against Trump administration stonewalling, the House Oversight and Reform Committee today voted to hold two high level Trump administration officials in contempt – Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. At issue this time is that pair’s failure to comply with congressional subpoenas to turn over documents related to the Trump administration decision to add a citizenship question to the census.

Earlier in the day, the Trump administration attempted to penalize the panel for not delaying the contempt vote by Trump declaring executive privilege over the requested documents. Yet the Oversight and Reform Committee went forward with the successful contempt vote anyway. And with the House’s newly (as of yesterday) expanded powers to ensure compliance with subpoenas, Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) may now go before the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group within the House to get permission to get a court order to enforce the subpoenas. According to The Hill:

The House Oversight and Reform Committee voted largely along party lines on Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for failing to comply with congressional subpoenas. …The high-stakes vote took place just hours after the Justice and Commerce Departments announced that President Trump had asserted executive privilege over the subpoenaed documents, which were tied to the Trump administration’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census. …In his opening statement, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) hit back at the president’s claim of executive privilege over the documents, calling it “another example of the administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’ mandated responsibilities.” …Cummings had offered late Tuesday to delay the vote if the agencies handed over unredacted copies of certain documents lawmakers had requested by Wednesday. But both departments rejected that deal.

A lot is at stake with a possible citizenship question on the 2020 census. Important things like congressional districting and funding allocation are determined by the census. Adding a citizenship question could cause households with non-citizens not to complete the census due to fears related to the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown, leading to an undercount disproportionately affecting minorities and Democratic-majority areas. That citizenship question could favor the interests of Republicans. The idea that the addition of the question was indeed political in nature was bolstered last month when the ACLU, which is suing the administration to block the citizenship question, submitted evidence that a Republican congressional redistricting strategist, who works to help Republicans determine redistricting that would be to their advantage in elections, had played a key role in orchestrating the addition of the question.

Three federal judges have already ruled against the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census. However, the Supreme Court is likely to be the ultimate arbiter of whether the question is or is not added and given President Trump’s two conservative additions to that court, it may well decide in Trump’s favor. However, if the House is able to gather enough evidence to prove that the decision to add the question was made for political reasons, perhaps the Supreme Court will rule against adding the question, which is why the Oversight Committee is working so hard to get the subpoenaed documents and is why the Trump administration is trying so hard to keep the committee from getting those documents.

Featured image of William Barr by Office of Public Affairs from Washington DC – NPOMS 2019-110 via Wikimedia Commons.