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House Oversight votes to hold William Barr and Wilbur Ross in contempt

Ocasio-Cortez on census controversy

The House Oversight Committee voted Wednesday 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 U.S. citizenship to the 2020 census.

The committee passed the resolution by a vote of 24-15. Just one Republican, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, joined Democrats in voting yes. 

"Fact: Both Democratic and Republican attorneys general are capable of being in contempt of Congress," Amash tweeted later.

Cummings held off the vote until later in the day so members could review the Justice Department's explanation of President Trump's invocation of executive privilege. A letter from the DOJ announcing the invocation of executive privilege arrived shortly before the hearing began Wednesday morning. 

The Commerce Department has said the agency has already turned over "nearly 14,000" pages of documents requested by the House Oversight Committee. But before the vote, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the chair of the committee, complained that the "vast majority" of the documents provided by the document were already public. Many, he said, were "printouts from the internet." Others were heavily redacted.

Ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan denied the Trump administration was stonewalling and accused Democrats on the committee of not wanting to know how many citizens there are in the country. 

The subpoenas, Cummings said, have been outstanding for two months, and there were specific documents requested. He said agencies have made no commitments to produce the documents and made no counteroffers. These are not good-faith negotiations over accommodations, Cummings added. 

Ross issued a strong and lengthy statement after he was held in contempt. 

"Today, the Democrats maintained their shameless, weekly attacks on this administration without consideration for the truth," Ross said. "I don't even think members of Congress can keep track of which committee is holding a show trial on any given day. Here's the bottom line: The Democrats have continued to attack this administration on dubious grounds, and they aren't going to let the facts get in the way of their own concocted stories."

On Monday, Cummings sent letters to Ross and Barr informing them that the Democratic-led panel would be scheduling contempt votes against them. He warned that votes would proceed unless their agencies turned over documents requested by the committee by Thursday.

The Justice Department, in response, said it would ask Mr. Trump to invoke executive privilege over the census documents if the committee decides to proceed with its contempt vote. 

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.

Inside the Trump administration's plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census

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.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on the addition of the citizenship question to the census.

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