House votes to hold Attorney General William Barr and  Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt

House votes to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt

July 17, 2019

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt of Congress on Wednesday, delivering an unusual rebuke to two of the government’s top officials and stiffening the capital’s partisan divide.

Lawmakers, by a vote of 230 to 198, said Barr and Ross had defied subpoenas seeking information about the failed attempt by President Donald Trump’s administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the once-a-decade survey that helps divvy up political power and billions of dollars in government spending. 

Wednesday’s vote was the first time since 2012 that the full House has held a sitting attorney general in contempt and asked that he be prosecuted, and the first time the chamber had held a commerce secretary in contempt. 

The vote, led by the House’s Democratic majority, came one day after the House staged an acrimonious vote to condemn President Donald Trump’s Twitter attacks against four Democratic congresswomen of color as racist. Another measure of the toxic political environment was on display before the contempt action when members blocked a proposal to impeach Trump. 

In a joint letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Barr and Ross called the action “unreasonable, counterproductive and contrary” to the normal workings of congressional oversight.

“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,” Barr and Ross wrote just before the vote. “We strongly disagree with any suggestion that our departments have obstructed this investigation.”

Barr already has been cited for contempt by both the House Judiciary and Oversight committees for failing to produce information about both the census and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference.

President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan and FBI Director Christopher Wray attend the 38th Annual National Peace Officers Memorial Service on May 15, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski, AFP/Getty Images)

The criminal contempt citations, which are are punishable by a year in jail and up to $100,000 in fines, are unlikely to result in prosecution as Barr oversees the Justice Department, which would be in charge of bringing a case. 

The action arises from a battle within the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee where Trump asserted executive privilege last month to shield documents relating to the citizenship question secret.

Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, R-Md., characterized the action as “blanket defiance” by the administration, while Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the panel’s top Republican, said committee Democrats had taken the action in an attempt to sway the Supreme Court, which was considering the citizenship question at the times.

The Supreme Court ultimately blocked the administration’s bid to add the citizenship query, ruling 5 to 4 that the administration had offered a “contrived” reason for its decision to ask the question. President Trump said this month that the administration would abandon that effort. 

The Constitution calls for the census to count everyone in the country every decade. The administration’s decision to ask people whether they are citizens in 2020 had been contentious because of Democratic concerns that it could discourage participation by illegal immigrants who fear deportation. Republicans, however, said the census has included a citizenship question from 1820 to 1950, along with the question appearing on more detailed forms in more recent decades.

The census also is key to apportioning seats in Congress, providing data to map individual House districts, and to distributing billions of dollars in federal spending each year.

A House committee has voted to hold two top Trump administration officials in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with subpoenas for documents related to the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. (June 12)

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