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.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) broke with his party to vote with the panel’s Democrats.
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.
Wednesday’s vote, which comes just one day after the House voted to empower committee chairmen with more legal authority to enforce their subpoenas, is a further escalation of the battle between the Trump administration and House Democrats investigating the president.
The citizenship question has been hotly contested since Ross announced in March 2018 that it would be included on the 2020 census, stating that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had requested the question in order to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.
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’s mandated responsibilities.”
The chairman said that his committee has obtained evidence indicating that Ross had pursued the addition of a citizenship question to the census before DOJ officials asked for the question and that Trump advisers began discussing the question ahead of the president’s inauguration in 2017.
“Although we have limited information about this scheme, we have been blocked from fully determining the real reason the administration sought to add the citizenship question,” Cummings said. “That is because the Department of Justice and the Department of Commerce have refused to turn over key documents requested by the committee.”
Cummings told reporters after the vote that it was “one of the more sadder days” of his career in Congress.
He said that the census is important not just for making sure that states get the amount of federal funds they need and for drawing district maps, but for making sure every hard-working person in America is counted, regardless of citizenship.
“The question is, what are they getting back, and the census allows them to get their fair share of the dollars that they put in,” Cummings said.
And he echoed an impassioned speech he delivered earlier during Wednesday’s hearing, emphasizing the importance of his committee’s efforts to conduct oversight on the Trump administration.
“Two hundred to 300 years from now, people will look back on this moment. And they will ask the question, what did you do? What did you do when there was an effort to undercount your neighbors?” Cummings said.
“What we’ve got to say is that we stood up,” he continued.
In a harsh statement released after the vote, Ross went after Democrats, claiming that they have “maintained their shameless, weekly attacks on this Administration without consideration for the truth.”
“By holding a contempt vote, the committee has already demonstrated its scorn for the Constitution, continually refusing to engage in the constitutionally-mandated accommodation process. That is far more serious than the empty stunt the committee performed today,” the secretary said.
And DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement that the vote “undermines Congress’s credibility with the American people.”
“Despite the committee’s political games, the department will remain focused on its critical work safeguarding the American people and upholding the rule of law,” Kupec said.
Republicans who voted against the contempt measures claimed that the vote is an attempt by Democrats to influence the Supreme Court’s current consideration of whether to allow the citizenship question on the census. They noted that past versions of the census have included the question and that it remains on a more frequently distributed survey that goes out to a smaller percentage of the American population.
“How do we get to the point today where we’re going to hold the secretary of Commerce, the attorney general of the United States in contempt because we don’t want to ask the question that everyone in the country thinks we’re already asking and in fact we are?” asked Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the ranking member of the committee.