A day after the full House passed a civil contempt resolution authorizing its committees to take the Trump administration to court and pursue criminal contempt cases to enforce their subpoenas, the House Oversight Committee is testing the waters.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Oversight Committee passed a contempt resolution on a 24-15 vote for both Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, specifically because the Trump administration is not complying with the committee’s subpoena request for information on why they added a US citizenship question to the 2020 census. Republican Rep. Justin Amash (MI), a vocal supporter of impeaching President Trump, voted with Democrats.
As Vox’s Dara Lind explained, the decision to add the citizenship question was a controversial move, and one that the US Supreme Court is set to issue a ruling on this term. A group of states sued the administration over concern that the question could scare off immigrants from filling out the census questionnaire, and thus throw off the population data that’s used to draw House districts for the next 10 years.
There’s also evidence that Republicans may have been trying to give themselves an electoral advantage through this move; unearthed court files showing that late Republican redistricting strategist Thomas Hofeller “played a significant role in orchestrating the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 Decennial Census to create a structural electoral advantage for, in his own words, ‘Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.’”
While these states and the Trump administration await the Supreme Court ruling, Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and his committee members have been trying to learn more about why the citizenship question was added at all, seeking documents and witnesses from the administration to get answers.
Of course, they haven’t been successful — the Trump administration has refused to comply with the committee’s requests, as it has with all other congressional subpoenas. On Wednesday, the administration asserted sweeping executive privilege to block the committee’s access to documents related to the census.
That brings us to today’s committee vote, when Cummings will use the power the full House gave him Wednesday to hold Barr and Ross in contempt of Congress and pursue legal action of his own.
“It does not matter what the topic is — the tactics are the same,” Cummings said in recent remarks. “And this begs the question — what are they hiding?”
The census investigation speaks to a larger pattern of obstruction by the Trump administration
Much of the attention on Capitol Hill has been focused on Democrats’ battle to get parts of special counsel Robert Mueller’s unredacted report through subpoenas, which the White House has strongly resisted.
But as Wednesday’s Oversight contempt vote shows, the Trump administration’s obstruction has happened on a much broader array of topics — including ones that have nothing to do with Mueller or the Russia investigation. Cummings has already had an early victory in what will undoubtedly be a long court battle to get the president’s financial information from the accounting firm Mazar’s (the Trump administration is currently appealing the ruling). But he is also investigating Trump administration actions that could impact everyday Americans.
Cummings’s proposed resolution is “to proceed with both criminal and civil actions to enforce the Committee’s bipartisan subpoenas,” meaning the committee could pursue a criminal contempt case against Ross and Barr. That’s a stronger stance than House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY) has taken against Barr so far; on Monday, Nadler announced he was holding off on pursuing criminal contempt after his committee struck a deal with the Justice Department to get previously redacted parts of the Mueller report.
As Vox’s Dylan Scott wrote, this subpoena battle has been going for some time:
House Democrats were transparent about their intention to aggressively investigate Trump after they took power, arguing the prior Republican majority had given the president a free pass. According to Trump’s lawyers, Democrats have issued more than 100 subpoenas and other requests for information from the president and his associates.
The White House’s response has been to provide as much resistance to that congressional oversight as possible. Even on requests that are eventually acquiesced to, Democratic aides told me the administration will often slow-roll those queries or provide nonresponsive answers.
Trump has defied the conventional norms of transparency that we expect from our presidents since before his election. In this latest escalation, he’s been willing to entertain a constitutional crisis to continue withholding information from Democratic lawmakers.
Cummings’s contempt resolution is the latest test of whether Congress can hold the Trump administration accountable.