The House voted Wednesday to hold both Attorney General William P. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. in criminal contempt of Congress over the administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
Although the resolution passed with a 230-198 vote, it was overwhelmingly along party lines and will almost certainly have no impact unless Mr. Barr decides to arrest himself and a fellow Cabinet member.
The vote stemmed from the officials’ failures to comply with subpoenas issued from the House Oversight and Reform Committee for documents regarding the decision-making process behind the citizenship question.
Democrats said the vote was a chance to assert Congress‘ authority in the face of defiance from the executive branch.
“In the case of the attorney general and Secretary Ross, they blatantly obstructed our ability to do Congressional oversight,” said Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat.
No Republicans voted for the measure — though newly independent Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan did — and GOP officials in both political branches of government dismissed the vote as theater.
Mr. Ross accused the Democrats of never truly trying to have a “productive relationship” with the administration.
“Preferring to play political games rather than help lead the country, they have made every attempt to ascribe evil motivations to everyday functions of government,” he said.
A Justice Department spokeswoman also slammed the contempt vote.
“Holding the attorney general in contempt for working in good-faith with Congress marks a new low for Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s House of Representatives,” said spokesman Kerri Kupec. “This vote is nothing more than a political stunt. While the House plays games, the Department will continue its critical work of pursuing justice and ensuring safety for all Americans.”
The White House also blasted the vote, calling it “another ridiculous attempt to harass the president.”
“Instead of accepting the numerous good-faith efforts of accommodation the Departments have made, Democrats continue to demand documents that are subject to executive privilege,” it said in a statement. “House Democrats know they have no legal right to these documents, but their shameful and cynical politics know no bounds.”
Republicans pushed back on the resolution calling it a blatant political showboat maneuver, particularly because the citizenship issue is now moot.
Judiciary Ranking Member Jim Jordan blasted the vote and defended the administration’s effort to add the citizenship question.
“Asking about citizenship is neither new nor controversial,” he said in a statement. “The Democrats’ misuse of their contempt authority today raises the question: Why don’t they want to know how many American citizens are in this country?”
In late June, the Supreme Court derailed the administration’s plans to add the question and Mr. Trump backed down on his plans for the census, and instead ordered his agencies to pool their resources and data for the Commerce Department to use to determine how many residents are citizens.
Despite the battle over the census being settled, Mr. Cummings said the contempt citation and their investigation was still necessary.
“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.
“This contempt citation is a misuse of the most powerful tool available to this body,” he said. “If the Democrats can’t impeach President Trump, they will instead hold his Cabinet in contempt of Congress. This is just another episode of political theater.”
“By taking this action, the House is both unnecessarily undermining inter-branch comity and degrading the constitutional separation of powers and its own institutional integrity,” the two cabinet officials wrote.
Democrats have taken to holding members of the president’s administration in contempt in an ongoing effort to push back against resistance from officials and the White House in Congressional investigations.
This is Mr. Barr‘s third time being held in contempt by Congress, and second by the whole House. Democrats have also held former White House counsel Don McGahn in contempt, and are eyeing a citation for presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway as well.
Wednesday’s vote goes further than previous contempt motions in this Congress so far because it’s elevated to the level of criminal contempt, which would typically result in a referral to the Justice Department — and there lies the reason the motion is mostly symbolic.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said Democrats are wasting their time and their majority by pursuing the president.
“When I watch people campaign and they talk about what they want to achieve here — how many said they wanted to have a week of contempt, of impeach, and resolution all after one entity? The president of the United States,” he said.
⦁ Jeff Mordock contributed to this article.
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