Oversight Committee Threatens Wilbur Ross, William Barr With Contempt In Census Dispute

Chairman Elijah Cummings said the Cabinet officials’ refusal to comply with subpoenas was "part of a pattern."

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform threatened to hold Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress on Monday after both officials refused to comply with subpoenas related to the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee chairman, informed Barr and Ross that the panel was scheduling a vote to hold both Cabinet officials in contempt. Cummings said the committee would consider postponing the vote if the two of them complied with the subpoenas’ demands by Thursday, June 6.

“Unfortunately your actions are part of a pattern. 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,” Cummings wrote in his letter.

Cummings noted that the committee sought 11 “high priority” documents from Ross that the Department of Commerce had yet to produce. The committee is also seeking documents from the Justice Department and a deposition from a top official in the department’s Civil Rights Division. That official, John Gore, played a key role in drafting the Justice Department’s formal request that a citizenship question be added to the next census. The department instructed him not to comply with the subpoena because the Oversight Committee wouldn’t let a Justice Department lawyer sit in on the deposition.

The Trump administration argues that they want the question on the census so they can better enforce the Voting Rights Act. Critics contend that justification is a pretext ― the decennial census has not directly asked about citizenship since 1950 and the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. They say the Trump administration wants the question on the census to drive down census responses from immigrant and minority communities.

Cummings’ letter also referenced new documents, made public in an explosive filing in a federal lawsuit last week, that suggest the late Thomas Hofeller, a prominent Republican redistricting expert, played a role in advancing the citizenship question. Hofeller’s involvement is particularly alarming, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue, because in 2015 he authored a study explaining how adding a citizenship question to the census was a key step toward a new method of redistricting that would give more power to white voters and the GOP.

The plaintiffs in that case accuse the Commerce Department and Gore of concealing Hofeller’s role in adding the citizenship question. The Justice Department denies that Hofeller influenced Gore.

The House Judiciary Committee already voted in May to hold Barr in contempt for failing to produce an unredacted version of the Mueller report and its underlying evidence.

Three federal courts have blocked the Trump administration from adding the citizenship question to the census, and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide the issue by the end of June. During oral arguments in April, the court’s more conservative justices appeared to be leaning toward allowing the question.

A Commerce Department spokesperson said the agency had already made extensive efforts to comply with the committee’s request.

“The Secretary himself voluntarily testified for nearly seven hours before the 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 spokesman said in a statement. “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.”

Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the ranking Republican on the Oversight Committee,  dismissed Cummings’ move as political. “The Democrats’ desperation to affect the outcome of the case raises the question: why don’t they want to know how many American citizens are in the United States of America?” Jordan said in a statement.

The story has been updated with comment from Rep. Jim Jordan and the Commerce Department.