House panel votes to hold top officials in contempt

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., listens to an objection by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, left, the ranking member, as they debate whether to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents related to the Trump administration's decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON -- A House committee voted Wednesday to hold two top Trump administration officials in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with subpoenas for documents related to a decision adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The House Oversight Committee voted 24-15 to advance contempt measures against Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who has said he supports an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, was the sole Republican to join with Democrats.

The vote sends the contempt measures to the full House. Congressional leaders could go directly to court to try to force compliance with the subpoenas under a resolution approved earlier this week.

The committee's action marks an escalation of Democratic efforts to use their House majority to aggressively investigate the inner workings of the Trump administration.

The vote came as the White House asserted executive privilege on the matter Wednesday. The Justice Department said officials had "engaged in good-faith efforts" to satisfy the committee's oversight needs and labeled the contempt vote "unnecessary and premature."

It was not clear what would happen next. A resolution approved by the House on Tuesday empowers committee chairs to sue top Trump administration officials to force compliance with congressional subpoenas without a vote of the full House, as long as they have approval from a bipartisan group of House leaders.

Holding Barr and Ross in contempt would be a political blow but would not necessarily result in real punishment since the men are unlikely to go to jail or be arrested.

Democrats fear the citizenship question will reduce census participation in immigrant-heavy communities and result in a severe undercount of minority voters. They say they want specific documents to determine why Ross added the question to the 2020 census and contend the administration has declined to provide the documents despite repeated requests.

The oversight panel's chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said he was saddened by the vote, but called it an important step to assert Congress' constitutional authority to serve as a check on executive power.

"The census is something that is so very, very important," Cummings told reporters after the vote. "It goes to the bedrock of our very society and our democracy. We need to make sure the census is counted and counted accurately."

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