The US House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to hold two top Trump administration officials in criminal contempt of Congress over their failure to provide documents related to their decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 US census.
Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross were cited for contempt by a House vote of 230-190, subjecting them to potential, though unlikely, future legal action in federal court.
“The census can be used to either empower or marginalise communities. This president decided on the path of marginalisation,” said Democratic Representative Jimmy Gomez before the vote.
“They did that by coming up with an idea to silence the voices of immigrant communities,” Gomez said.
The Supreme Court blocked the inclusion of the question, last month, saying the Trump administration did not give an adequate explanation for its plan.
President Donald Trump then weighed issuing an executive order to include the question, but dropped his bid last week, and instead directed federal agencies to provide the Department of Commerce with all records requests pertaining to the number of citizens and non-citizens in the United States.
‘Cheat its way to an undercount’
The census, required by the US Constitution, is used to allot seats in the US House of Representatives and distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds. Businesses also rely on census data to make critical strategic decisions, including where to invest capital.
The intent of the citizenship question, opponents said, was to manufacture a deliberate undercount of areas with high immigrant and Latino populations, costing Democratic-leaning regions seats in the House of Representatives.
Trump and his supporters say it makes sense to know how many non-citizens are living in the country.
But evidence surfaced in May that the challengers said showed that the administration’s plan to add a citizenship question was intended to discriminate against racial minorities, and benefit Republicans
Democrats said non-citizens, who could be subject to arrest or deportation under Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, would fear to return the form with their personal information to a federal government agency.
“The administration tried to cheat its way to an undercount,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Washington, DC, delegate in the House.
Democrats have pressed for specific documents to determine Ross’s motivation and contend the administration has declined to provide the material despite repeated requests.
Earlier on Wednesday, Ross and Barr urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to postpone the vote to “allow the constitutionally mandated accommodation process to continue”.
‘Nothing but a pretext’
Ross had called the contempt vote “silly” and said, “This is just more political theatre. It doesn’t really have any substantive basis.”
He and other officials have “answered thousands of questions,” said Ross, who testified before a House committee for nearly seven hours this spring. “We are not stonewalling. But we are also not yielding on the very, very important matter of executive privilege.”
Ross told the committee that the March 2018 decision to add the question was based on a Justice Department request to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Democrats disputed that, citing the documents unearthed last month and suggesting that a push to draw legislative districts in overtly partisan and racist ways was the real reason the administration wanted to include the question.
Democratic Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said the contempt vote was an important step to assert Congress’s constitutional authority to serve as a check on executive power.
“Holding any secretary in criminal contempt of Congress is a serious and sober matter – one that I have done everything in my power to avoid,” Cummings said during House debate. “But in the case of the attorney general and Secretary Ross, they blatantly obstructed our ability to do congressional oversight into the real reason Secretary Ross was trying, for the first time in 70 years, to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.”
While Ross and other officials have claimed the sole reason they wanted to add the citizenship question was to enforce the Voting Rights Act, “We now know that claim was nothing but a pretext,” Cummings said. “The Supreme Court said that.”
Republican James Comer said “the real issue we should be debating” is why Democrats are afraid to ask how many citizens live in the US. Contrary to Democrats’ claims, Ross and other officials have cooperated with the Oversight panel and provided thousands of documents, Comer said.
“If the Democrats can’t impeach President Trump, they will instead hold his Cabinet in contempt of Congress,” he said. “This is just another episode in political theatre.”
Action to hold Barr and Ross in contempt is a political blow but likely will not inflict real punishment because the Justice Department is unlikely to prosecute them.
A spokeswoman for Barr said the contempt vote defied logic and undermined Congress’s credibility with the American people.
Trump has pledged to “fight all the subpoenas” issued by Congress and says he won’t work on legislative priorities, such as infrastructure, until Congress halts investigations of his administration.
With additional reporting by William Roberts in Washington, DC