U.S. House holds top Trump officials in contempt over census citizenship question 

U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks about the release of the redacted version of the Mueller report as U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein listens at the Department of Justice April 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House on Wednesday voted to hold two of President Trump’s top officials in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over documents related to the administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. 

Brenda Lawrence
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence at the Detroit NAACP dinner | Andrew Roth

The chamber voted 230-198, largely along partisan lines, to hold U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt after they failed to comply with subpoenas from House Democrats. 

“Congress has an obligation to conduct oversight of the executive branch, yet this administration complains each time we request information critical to fulfilling our investigative responsibilities,” U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) said on the House floor.

The Michigan delegation was split 8-6, with U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Twp.) joining Democrats in voting for contempt. 

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Four Democrats voted against the resolution: U.S. Reps. Anthony Brindisi of New York, Jared Golden of Maine, Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Jefferson Van Drew of New Jersey. 

The vote marks House Democrats’ latest rebuke against Trump as the White House continues to defy their oversight requests. The contempt vote is primarily symbolic, as Trump’s U.S. Justice Department isn’t expected to pursue charges against the officials. 

Wilbur Ross
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appears before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on March 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. Ross testified about ongoing preparations for the 2020 Census, and with it, the addition of a citizenship question. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The battle over the citizenship question has been fought on several fronts, with lawmakers seeking documents while a lawsuit wound through the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court last month delayed the addition of a citizenship question to the census, citing problems with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ rationale for doing so. 

Despite declaring victory in that case, Democrats and other Trump opponents want more information from the administration, insisting that top officials were attempting to deter people — particularly immigrants — from responding to the census, which could drastically skew the count. Evidence unearthed from the files of a GOP operative suggests the question’s origins lie in an attempt to create an advantage for Republicans in redistricting.

Ross has said that the plan to revive a citizenship question on the 2020 census was an attempt to bolster the Voting Rights Act. 

U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said Wednesday ahead of the vote that it was needed to “preserve the integrity of this body and of the census.” 

Cummings added, “I do not take this decision lightly. Holding any secretary in criminal contempt of Congress is a serious and sober matter, one that I have done everything in my power to avoid.”

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The contempt vote is about congressional power, said U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). “We can’t legislate if we can’t get the information that we need,” he said. “The majority has a right to get what it wants. … If you act with contempt for the Congress of the United States of America and the people of the United States, we will hold you in contempt.” 

U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) urged increased oversight of the administration. “My Republican friends abrogated any accountability, any oversight of this administration in the two years they were in the majority and Mr. Trump was in the White House.” 

Republicans, meanwhile, accused Democrats of using contempt votes to score political points. 

“We’re using this as a political tool, and we’re better than that,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a top Republican on the oversight panel. 

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) criticized “certain people who feel that it would be wrong to ask about citizenship on the census.” 

Grothman added on the House floor, “As a lawmaker, I would certainly like to know how many people in this country are citizens. I’d also like to know how many people are legal or illegal. Both of which may affect decisions we make, formulas we make here.” 

Grothman said he plans to reintroduce legislation this year stipulating that non-citizens shouldn’t be eligible for public benefits. 

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.


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