Lawmakers Advance Measure to Hold Barr and Ross in Contempt

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., listens to an objection by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, left, the ranking member, as they debate Wednesday whether to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents related to the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Turning up the heat on its probe of the census citizenship question, the House Oversight Committee voted 24-15 Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for not complying with subpoenas.

The full House, controlled this year by Democrats, must still vote on the measure for it to take effect.

Earlier this morning, Chairman Elijah Cummings pushed the committee’s vote back after learning that President Donald Trump would assert executive privilege on all subpoenaed documents.

Cummings described the move from the White House as another example of the administration’s “blind defiance” of the legislative branch.

“I lose sleep over this,” Cummings, who is a Democrat, said when the committee reconvened this afternoon for the vote. “All we want is a fair count.”

The Justice Department emphasized that it has already allowed the committee to interview two senior officials while also turning over 17,000 pages of documents. It claims it is working to provide thousands of additional pages, but Cummings notes that the majority of the documents provided thus far were already public.

Additional documents sought by Congress include a Justice Department memo and unredacted emails between Ross and Justice Department officials pertaining to the citizenship question.

The House insists the secret memo is critical to determining when the census change was requested, after Ross told Congress repeatedly that he added the question at the request of the Justice Department.

Newly public records suggest that the administration obscured how the census change was influenced by Thomas Hofeller, a now-deceased Republican strategist who believed the question would advantage Republicans in voter redistricting.

Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, reminded the committee that 60 percent of her constituents are black. She called the citizenship question a racialized issue that purposely excludes communities of color.

Leading up to the vote Wednesday, the committee stressed that experts have predicted the citizenship question will result in inaccurate census reporting in major cities — a reality that would suffocate Democratic influence in urban communities for years to come.

Black and Latino voters are at risk of being undercounted by roughly 3.9 million, models from the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Urban Institute revealed last week.

“This is because you don’t want communities like mine being represented equally,” Tlaib said.

Democrats today voted down multiple Republican amendments to the bill to hold the Barr and Ross in contempt.

“I don’t want to muddy our waters,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said in response to the proposed amendments. “I want to make sure that we are laser focused. … We need to do our job.”

One of the proposed amendments sought to make historical record of the Supreme Court review of the citizenship question.

The conservative-led court is set to vote on the case later this month.

Cummings said he would not vote for the amendment because it was irrelevant to the Legislature as a co-equal branch of government. Failure to operate independently, the chairman added, would amount to legislative malpractice.

“No one is trying to be harmful to our attorney general,” Cummings said. “It is not about him. No one is trying to be harmful to our secretary of commerce.  It is not about him. It’s about our country.”

Wednesday’s committee hearing follows a 229-191 House vote the day before to find Barr in contempt for ignoring a subpoenae to testify before the Judiciary Committee last month.

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