House Oversight Votes to Hold Barr, Ross in Contempt Over Refusal to Turn Over Census Docs

Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, May 1, 2019. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

The House Oversight and Reform Committee voted largely along party lines Wednesday afternoon to hold Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in contempt over their refusal to comply with lawmakers’ subpoena-backed demands for documents related to the inclusion of a citizenship question on the upcoming census.

The contempt resolution passed 24–15, with Representative Justin Amash of Michigan the only Republican to join Democrats in support. The vote took place hours after the Department of Justice announced that President Trump had asserted executive privilege over the census documents Congress sought in anticipation of the contempt vote.

“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 to Oversight and Reform Committee chairman Elijah Cummings (D., Md.). “Regrettably, you have made these assertions necessary by your insistence upon scheduling a premature contempt vote.”

Cummings responded to the assertion of executive privilege by accusing the administration of trying to hide misconduct related to Ross’s March 2018 decision to add the citizenship question to the 2020 census.

“This begs the question: What is being hidden?” Cummings said. “This does not appear to be an effort to engage in good-faith negotiations or accommodations. Instead, it appears to be another example of the administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated responsibilities.”

Democrats on the panel have long demanded documents that they believe will provide greater insight into Ross’s motivation for including the citizenship question. Ross claims he was simply following instructions from the Department of Justice, but critics of the move have argued that it was a politically motivated attempt to decrease Democrats’ electoral power by rooting out the illegal immigrants that inflate the populations associated with their strongest congressional districts.

Should Cummings and his colleagues decide to pursue a criminal contempt citation, they will have to proceed to a full vote on the House floor. Alternatively, they might settle for a civil citation, which would require only a vote in the five-member Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group.

Cummings told CNN Tuesday that he is not yet sure how he will proceed and emphasized that he remains willing to negotiate with the administration over the release of the documents.

Ross, for his part, called the planned committee vote “an empty stunt” during a Tuesday CNBC interview.

“What we are doing is cooperating in a rational way that’s consistent with the rules, the regulations, the laws, and prior practice,” Ross said. “We have produced to the House Oversight Committee 14,000 pages of material. I testified before them for almost seven hours. We’re producing three more witnesses.”

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