WASHINGTON (CN) – The House of Representatives voted 230-198 to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt of Congress Wednesday for their failure to respond to subpoenas issued in connection to an investigation into the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census.
House Republicans panned the vote as a premature political stunt during debate on the House Floor Wednesday.
“This contempt citation is a misuse of one of the most powerful tools available to this body. The idea that the Trump administration is stonewalling this investigation or engaged in a cover-up from the top is simply wrong. The bottom line is, the Department of Justice and Commerce are cooperating,” Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky said Wednesday.
Ahead of the vote Wednesday, Attorney General Barr made a last-ditch request to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to stop the proceedings in a letter.
Saying his department had “no information to hide” and that “institutional integrities” still needed to be preserved, Barr lamented the decision to plow ahead.
“As the committee well knows, the limited materials still at issue are subject of a number of legal privileges that have been upheld in the pending litigation, as well as the president’s assertion of executive privilege,” Barr wrote.
The documents in question include emails and memorandum shared between the White House, the Republican National Committee and Trump’s campaign team. Democrats also want to review a memo passed from a former Commerce Department attorney to Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Gore which they say will reveal how officials first decided to include the question.
Expanded testimony from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is also sought. Kobach met with key White House officials in the days just after Trump’s inauguration and according to his private testimony before the Oversight Committee in June, Kobach discussed adding the question with former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, senior adviser Steve Bannon and even President Trump.
Secretary Ross contends adding the question was a response to a Justice Department directive to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. A specter of doubt was raised when court records revealed now-deceased Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller pushed for the question because he believed it would give Republicans and non-Hispanic white voters an electoral edge.
A total of 31,000 pages have been submitted to the House Oversight Committee: 14,000 pages from the Commerce Department and 17,000 from the Justice Department. But committee chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, emphasized those records have been heavily redacted or contain public information – rendering them mostly useless.
Restrictions were also placed on Democrats’ interview questions and so far as a secret Commerce Department memo about the census question, Cummings said Wednesday: “While the Justice Department has admitted it exists, it has refused to produce it.”
He added: “I do not come to the floor lightly, it is not an easy decision. But there comes a time when the Congress must speak up. We need to be clear, we, as a body, have a constitutional duty to be a check on the executive branch.”
The Supreme Court temporarily blocked the citizenship question from being added to the census on June 27. The high court found the Trump administration’s arguments and evidence to support its claim that the attempt was made to improve data collection and enforce voting rights lacked merit.
But the door remains open if attorneys can return with a more genuine premise. Trump first said the administration was “absolutely” continuing its effort to include the question but reversed course a week later.
Backing away from the defeat at the high court, the president instead turned to executive order and directed the Commerce Department to collect citizenship data through administrative records compiled during next year’s census. This method was first recommended in a memorandum to the Justice Department by the Census Bureau last January.
That same memo also informed Secretary Ross that collecting data this way would cost the federal government just $2 million, far less than the $27.5 million price tag the department estimated the government would pay if the question was added to the 2020 survey.
While many Republicans accused Democrats of interfering with the Supreme Court’s decision by forcing the contempt vote, the investigation into the census question began over 10 months before the court took up the case.
Failure by Barr and Ross to comply shows the administration is engaged in a “campaign to subvert our laws,” Cummings said.
Other Republicans argued the contempt vote was an approach by Democrats to impeach the president through other means.
“If Democrats cannot impeach President Trump, they will hold this administration in contempt of Congress. This is political theater and another attempt to delegitimize attempts to count the correct number of U.S. citizens in the United States,” Comer said. “The real issue we should be debating is why Democrats are afraid to ask how many citizens are in the U.S.?”
Cummings dismissed the notion.
“This is bigger than the census. This is about protecting the integrity of the Congress of the United States of America. We need to understand how and why the Trump administration tried to add a question based on pretext so we can consider reforms to ensure this never happens again,” he said.
In a statement immediately following the vote, the White House condemned the Democrats’ actions.
“House Democrats know they have no legal right to these documents, but their shameful and cynical politics know no bounds,” said White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham.