World / Politics

House poised to hold William Barr, Wilbur Ross in contempt over census fight

Bloomberg

The House is nearing a vote Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for withholding documents on now-canceled plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The vote will be largely symbolic because there’s virtually no chance the Justice Department would move in court against the attorney general. Still, it’s part of the escalating conflict between the Democratic-controlled chamber and President Donald Trump.

On Tuesday, the House condemned as “racist” the president’s criticism of four freshman Democrats, all women of color. Also on Wednesday, the House is set to vote on Senate-passed measures to block the administration’s plan to sell arms to Saudi Arabia.

The fight over the census is finished, though, after a loss at the Supreme Court prompted Trump to drop his effort to add the citizenship question. In a face-saving measure, the president said last week the Census Bureau will instead use existing government records to determine citizenship for at least 90 percent of the population.

But Democrats, led by Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings, argue the administration continues to withhold documents, emails and testimony on the motives behind the effort to add the question. Trump asserted executive privilege over the material.

Cummings said Monday it would set a bad precedent for the House not to respond to this “stonewalling.”

“We need to know how and why that happened, so that it can never happen again,” said Cummings of Maryland.

House Democrats say the Trump administration’s bid to include the citizenship question was designed to suppress the census response rate of immigrants and noncitizens. That could reduce some states’ number of congressional seats, Electoral College clout and federal funding.

Ross had argued that the aim of the census question was to help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters. But a divided Supreme Court ruled June 27 that Ross’s rationale was “contrived” and couldn’t be squared with evidence about his true motivations.

Cummings acknowledged at a rules committee meeting Monday that he didn’t know when, or if, any legal action on the contempt citation would occur.

“I don’t know what the outcome will be; I wish I did,” he said. But he added, “If we can’t get documents, if the people that come before us won’t answer questions, how can we hold any person accountable?”

The top Republican on the oversight panel, Jim Jordan of Ohio, argued Monday that a contempt vote is premature because the committee is still in talks with the government over the documents.

Jordan noted the House voted in 2012 to hold former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over documents tied to a botched government gun sting operation. That case remained in federal courts for seven years, with a settlement reached this year.

“I don’t recall any beneficial outcome of that after the vote on the floor of the House,” said Jordan on Monday.