WASHINGTON -- Congress clashed with President Donald Trump on Wednesday over its efforts to investigate how a citizenship question was added to the 2020 census, as a House committee voted to recommend that two Cabinet secretaries be held in contempt of Congress for failing to cooperate with the inquiry.
Earlier Wednesday, the president invoked executive privilege to block disclosure of crucial documents.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee's vote to recommend holding Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt was the culmination of a monthslong dispute with the administration over the panel's efforts to compel testimony from top officials and documents related to the census question. The vote was mostly along party lines, with only one Republican, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, supporting it.
Democrats have said the Trump administration's decision to ask 2020 census respondents whether they are citizens is a politically motivated attempt by Republicans to intimidate noncitizens and ultimately depress responses from members of minority groups, leading to less representation for communities that tend to vote for Democrats. The issue has gone all the way to the Supreme Court, and a decision on the legality of the question is expected this month.
The administration has turned over more than 17,000 of pages of documents, and Ross testified for nearly seven hours in March. The Justice Department said two senior officials were interviewed by committee staff members and said officials were working to produce tens of thousands of additional pages of relevant documents.
Department spokesman Kerri Kupec said in a statement that the committee's "attempt to define the department of Justice's good-faith effort as 'contempt' defies logic" and the panel's vote "undermines Congress's credibility with the American people."
Ahead of the contempt vote, the Justice Department informed Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee chairman, that Trump had decided to invoke his secrecy powers because Cummings had "chosen to go forward with an unnecessary and premature contempt vote."
In the Justice Department's view, the privilege assertion undercuts the contempt finding because it prevents the attorney general from turning over materials lawmakers had subpoenaed.
"We must protect the integrity of the census, and we will stand up for Congress' authority under the Constitution to conduct meaningful oversight," Cummings said, calling the privilege claim "another example of the administration's blanket defiance of Congress' constitutionally mandated responsibilities."
"This begs the question," Cummings added: "What is being hidden?"
At the White House, Trump defended his administration's push to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census: "When a census goes out, you should find out whether or not -- and you have the right to ask whether -- somebody is a citizen of the United States," he said as he met with Poland's president, Andrzej Duda.
But on the Oversight Committee, Democrats demanded to see the deliberations behind the question. In their census investigation, they said, the administration had provided little more than unresponsive documents and stonewalling of critical deposition requests.
"It is indeed laughable" to say that the administration had cooperated with the panel, said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., holding a blacked-out page with no text visible as an example of the heavily redacted material the Commerce Department had sent. "We've reached our limit."
After the vote, Ross called the Democrats' action part of a series of "shameless, weekly attacks on this administration."
Some of the documents the committee is seeking are protected by attorney-client privilege and other confidential processes, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said. The president has made a "protective assertion" of executive privilege so the administration can fully review all of the documents, he added.
"The president, the Department of Justice, has every right to do that," White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said on MSNBC. Democrats are "asking for documents that are privileged, and I would hope that they can continue to negotiate and speak about what is appropriate and what is not, but the world is watching. This country sees that they'd rather continue to investigate than legislate."
The committee and the Justice Department could still work out a deal for the documents related to the 2020 census decision and testimony from a senior Justice Department official.
Absent an agreement, the full House would vote on the contempt resolution, though the timing is unclear.
The standoff was the latest move in an intensifying confrontation between House Democrats and Trump, who has vowed to fight "all" their oversight investigation subpoenas.
There are few precedents in that area of the law to provide definitive guideposts about where to draw the line between Congress' oversight power and the president's authority to keep information secret. Past disputes have largely been resolved through negotiations and accommodations, so the matter never reached the Supreme Court.
But Trump's vow to fight House Democrats' efforts to scrutinize his actions and those of his administration across a range of fronts -- including seeking disclosure of his hidden tax returns, how some of Trump's associates obtained security clearances, and underlying evidence from Robert Mueller's inquiry -- have raised the prospect of litigation that is appealed all the way to the highest court.
The House voted Tuesday to authorize the Judiciary Committee to file a lawsuit asking a judge to order the executive branch to comply with two subpoenas related to the Mueller investigation and explicitly empowering committees to file such litigation over other subpoenas without votes of the full House. But to date the House has not voted to hold any Trump official in contempt of Congress.
The fight over the census centers on liberals' suspicions that asking respondents to say whether they are American citizens could be a deliberate ploy to tilt the every-10-years reapportionment of House seats, shortchanging areas with higher levels of migrants. They fear that people in the country illegally or members of their families would be afraid to turn in their questionnaires, resulting in a population undercount.
The Census Bureau has estimated that asking all American residents whether they are citizens may spark a 5.8% decline in response rates from noncitizens, which Democrats fear will skew the reapportionment of House seats toward Republicans while depriving states of federal resources. Apportionment of House districts has been based on raw population, not the number of eligible voters.
"I want to know why people like Kris Kobach, with a resume of voter suppression techniques, have their fingerprints all over the most sensitive census operations that we have as a government," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said as a debate over the contempt citations unfolded between Republicans and Democrats on the panel. "This determines who is here. This determines who has power in the United States."
In sworn testimony before Congress, Ross said he had decided to add the question "solely" in response to a Justice Department request in December 2017 for data to help it enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But emails disclosed during the litigation showed that Ross had begun discussing the addition of the question several months before that, and that Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and architect of strict voter-identification laws, had discussed doing so during Trump's presidential campaign in 2016. Three federal trial judges have ruled that the evidence in the record demonstrates that Ross was dissembling.
New evidence from the computer files of deceased Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller suggest that the administration's actual reason was to collect information that might allow states to draw voting districts counting only eligible voters rather than all residents, as is the current practice. That would, the strategist wrote, "be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites."
In a filing Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union asked the Supreme Court to hold off on a decision, arguing that the federal judge in the case needs time to consider new evidence related to the Hofeller files.
Republicans argued that Democrats were rushing the contempt citations in an attempt to pre-empt the Supreme Court and possibly influence its ruling.
"You are so concerned the Supreme Court's going to rule on this that you've got to get it done before that happens," said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the panel. "Why don't the Democrats want to know how many citizens are in the country?"
Information for this article was contributed by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Charlie Savage of The New York Times; by Matt Zapotosky, John Wagner, Mike DeBonis and Felicia Sonmez of The Washington Post; and by Matthew Daly, Michael Balsamo and Kevin Freking of The Associated Press.
A Section on 06/13/2019
Print Headline: Panel backs contempt in dispute over census