The US House has voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt for not complying with the House Oversight Committee’s subpoena request for information on why they added a US citizenship question to the 2020 census. The final vote was 230-198, with only former Republican Rep. Justin Amash joining Democrats (four Democrats also voted no).
The vote is part of an ongoing effort by House Democrats to get more information about the Trump administration’s attempts to include a citizenship question on the census. Wednesday’s vote marks the first time the full House has passed a criminal contempt resolution for members of the Trump administration.
Even though the House just passed a criminal referral asking the US Justice Department to prosecute Barr and Ross, it’s crucial to remember Congress is essentially just making another a request here, albeit a more strongly worded one. It’s up to the executive branch to comply, and actually getting them to do so can be difficult, precisely because the executive branch is the one with the power to prosecute the individual who isn’t complying with Congress’s subpoena request.
The citizenship question won’t appear on the upcoming census as a result of a June 27 US Supreme Court ruling, but Wednesday’s vote is part of a larger fact-finding mission in Congress — one the Trump administration has been resisting. Democrats have been investigating why the White House was trying to add a citizenship question since 2018, and the Trump administration has been unwilling to provide documents or witnesses to the House Oversight Committee.
“We need to be clear that we as a body have a constitutional duty to be a check on the executive branch — that’s our job!” said Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD) during fiery a floor speech before the vote Wednesday.
In its June 27 ruling, the Supreme Court said it didn’t buy the Trump administration’s argument for why it added the citizenship question: ostensibly to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Quite a lot of evidence suggests this was not the case. The administration could have offered a different rationale, but a deadline for printing the census forms was rapidly approaching, and the Trump administration had no options but to delete the question.
Cummings and his committee members have been trying to learn more about why the citizenship question was added at all, seeking documents and witnesses from the administration to get answers.
They haven’t been successful — the Trump administration has refused to comply with the committee’s requests, as it has with many other congressional subpoenas. Last month, the administration asserted sweeping executive privilege to block the committee’s access to documents related to the census. Today’s vote helps Democrats go to court to sue for this information.
The census investigation speaks to a larger pattern of obstruction by the Trump administration
Much of the attention on Capitol Hill has been focused on Democrats’ battle to get parts of special counsel Robert Mueller’s unredacted report through subpoenas, which the White House has strongly resisted.
But as Wednesday’s contempt vote shows, the Trump administration’s obstruction has happened on a much broader array of topics — including ones that have nothing to do with Mueller or the Russia investigation. Cummings has already had an early victory in what will undoubtedly be a long court battle to get the president’s financial information from the accounting firm Mazars (the Trump administration is currently appealing the ruling). But he is also investigating Trump administration actions that could impact everyday Americans.
The resolution that passed through Cummings’s committee last month and the floor today was “to proceed with both criminal and civil actions to enforce the Committee’s bipartisan subpoenas,” meaning the committee could pursue a criminal contempt case against Ross and Barr.
As Vox’s Dylan Scott wrote, this subpoena battle has been going for some time:
House Democrats were transparent about their intention to aggressively investigate Trump after they took power, arguing the prior Republican majority had given the president a free pass. According to Trump’s lawyers, Democrats have issued more than 100 subpoenas and other requests for information from the president and his associates.
The White House’s response has been to provide as much resistance to that congressional oversight as possible. Even on requests that are eventually acquiesced to, Democratic aides told me the administration will often slow-roll those queries or provide nonresponsive answers.
Trump has defied the conventional norms of transparency that we expect from our presidents since before his election. In this latest escalation, he’s been willing to entertain a constitutional crisis to continue withholding information from Democratic lawmakers.
Cummings’s contempt resolution is the latest test of whether Congress can hold the Trump administration accountable.