Washington — House Democrats threatened on Monday to hold both Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for not complying with subpoenas for documents related to the Trump administration's controversial decision to add a question on.
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, sent letters to Ross and Barr on Monday afternoon, informing the two cabinet officials that the Democratic-led panel was in the process of scheduling contempt votes against them. He warned them the votes would go ahead unless their agencies turn over documents requested by the committee by Thursday.
"Your actions are part of a pattern," Cummings wrote in both letters. "The Trump Administration has been engaged in one of the most unprecedented cover-ups since Watergate, extending from the White House to multiple federal agencies and departments of the government and across numerous investigations. The tactics of this cover-up are now clear."
For months, Democrats on the committee have been asking the administration to provide them with a batch of documents related to the decision-making behind the proposed change to the Census, including all drafts of a December 2017 Justice Department letter asking the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, to add the citizenship question to the questionnaire.
A Commerce Department official denounced Cumming's threat, saying the agency had already turned over "nearly 14,000" pages of documents requested by the Oversight Committee.
"The Committee has taken this extraordinary step to compel production of documents protected by longstanding and well-settled privileges, including the government's right to protect confidential attorney-client and deliberative communications, which has been upheld in court," the official told CBS News. "To any objective observer, it is abundantly clear that the Committee's intent is not to find facts, but to desperately and improperly influence the Supreme Court with mere insinuations and conspiracy theories."
The two letters represent another escalation in the intensifying showdown between gavel-wielding Democrats in the House and the administration, which President Trump has instructed to "fight" all subpoenas. They also follow a recent court filing in the bitter legal battle over the addition of the citizenship question to the census, which alleges that a Republican gerrymandering strategist played an important role in the government's controversial decision.
Plaintiffs in one of several legal challenges to the question's addition said in a filing last week that Thomas Hofeller, a longtime political consultant prominent in Republican circles for designing advantageous electoral maps, helped craft the rationale used by the administration to implement the proposed change to the decennial questionnaire.
Hofeller, according to evidence cited by plaintiffs, concluded in a 2015 study that the inclusion of the citizenship question to the census would allow the drawing of political maps to benefit "Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites." He then pushed the Trump transition team to add the question and ghostwrote a portion of a draft of the letter the Justice Department sent the Commerce Department in late 2017, according to the plaintiffs.
The new revelation, which came weeks before the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on the citizenship question's addition, represents the most concrete evidence so far to suggest that the Trump administration's proposed change was designed to expand the electoral power of the Republican Party.
When Ross announced he was reinstating the citizenship question on the 2020 census questionnaire in March 2018, he said it was in response to a request from the Justice Department for better citizenship data to assist in its enforcement of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But critics believe the Commerce Department's proposal would lead to low response rates among immigrants and distort congressional apportionment in favor of Republicans. They say both citizen and non-citizen immigrants would hesitate to answer the citizenship question, fearing reprisals from the Trump administration, which favors hardline immigration policies.
If these immigrants do not participate in the census, critics argue, they will not be counted for congressional apportionment — the process by which seats in the House of Representatives are distributed among states.