Washington - A Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives committee voted on Wednesday in favor of holding Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for defying congressional subpoenas related to adding a citizenship question to the U.S. census.
By a 24-15 vote, the House Oversight Committee recommended that the full House find Barr and Ross in contempt. For Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official, it was the second time a House panel had made such a recommendation against him.
President Donald Trump earlier in the day asserted executive privilege on Wednesday to keep under wraps documents related to adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census, defying a subpoena from the committee, which is chaired by Democrat Elijah Cummings.
The Republican president and the Democrats who control the House are locked in a political battle over their power to investigate him, with the president and his closest advisers stonewalling numerous subpoenas and requests for documents and testimony from investigative committees.
Executive privilege is only rarely invoked by U.S. presidents to keep other branches of government from getting access to certain internal executive branch information. Trump last month also invoked it to block a House panel from getting an unredacted copy of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s candidacy.
The president’s assertion does not change the fact that the attorney general and the secretary of commerce are sadly in contempt,” Cummings said during a nearly seven-hour meeting of the panel to consider the contempt citation and other matters.
The House Judiciary Committee on May 8 voted to recommend a contempt citation against Barr over his refusal to comply with the subpoena seeking an unredacted version of the Mueller report.
Contempt of Congress is an offense that can be enforced in several ways. So far, House Democrats have moved toward bringing federal court actions in which they would ask a judge to enforce compliance with congressional subpoenas by imposing daily fines on defendants or even arrest and imprisonment.
The fight over adding a citizenship question to the census presents high stakes for both Trump’s fellow Republicans and the Democrats, with the 2020 U.S. elections looming.
Asked about the issue, Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday: “When you have a census and you’re not allowed to talk about whether or not somebody’s a citizen or not, that doesn’t sound so good to me. ... It’s totally ridiculous that we would have a census without asking.”
Democrats said during the Oversight Committee meeting that the issue deserved closer scrutiny.
“Is it really about citizenship? No. It’s about reducing the number of people of color being counted in the census. That’s exactly what it’s about,” Representative Rashida Tlaib said.
The U.S. Supreme Court is due to rule by the end of this month in the administration’s appeal of a judge’s ruling that blocked the addition of the question as a violation of federal law. The judge’s ruling came in a lawsuit by a group of states and immigrant rights organizations arguing that including a citizenship question would frighten immigrants and Latinos from participating in the decennial national population count.
Critics have said Republicans want to engineer a deliberate population undercount in Democratic-leaning areas where many immigrants live in order to gain seats in the House. The census population count is used to allot seats in the House and to guide distribution of billions of dollars of federal funds.