House votes to hold Barr, Ross in criminal contempt over census dispute

Dispute related to census question

By Clare Foran and Ashley Killough, CNN
Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. Attorney General William Barr

(CNN) - The House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt over a dispute related to the Trump administration's efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The vote was 230-198, largely along party lines. Four Democrats broke with their party and voted against the resolution. One independent -- Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan -- supported the resolution.

The vote marks the first time that the full House has voted on criminal contempt of Trump administration officials since Democrats took over the majority. The move is virtually guaranteed to further inflame hostilities between the administration and House Democrats as they pursue oversight efforts. It is unclear, however, what practical impact the House contempt vote will have since a US attorney is not likely to take action against the head of their own Justice Department.

The latest escalation in tensions between House Democrats and the administration comes after the House Oversight Committee approved a resolution last month recommending that the House find Barr and Ross in contempt "for refusal to comply with subpoenas" issued as part of the panel's investigation into the push to include a question about citizenship in the upcoming census.

After the Supreme Court last month blocked the question from being added to the census, Trump created uncertainty over what would happen when he insisted that efforts to add the question were "absolutely moving forward" despite statements from both his Department of Justice and secretary of commerce that the administration was printing the census without the question. But at the end of last week, Trump retreated, instead asking government agencies to provide records that could determine a head-count of citizens without polling census-takers directly.

The Justice and Commerce departments pushed back forcefully on the committee vote and have argued that they have been working in good faith to respond to requests from the committee and have already submitted thousands of pages of documents to the panel.

Ross dismissed the House floor vote as a "PR stunt."

"House Democrats never sought to have a productive relationship with the Trump Administration, and today's PR stunt further demonstrates their unending quest to generate headlines instead of operating in good faith with our Department," Ross said in a statement, adding, "It is an unfortunate fact that there are some who would like nothing more than to see this Administration fail whatever the cost to the country may be."

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec called the contempt vote "nothing more than a political stunt."

"The Department of Justice has worked for months to supply thousands of documents to accommodate Congress' requests," Kupec said, adding, "Holding the Attorney General in contempt for working in good-faith with Congress marks a new low for Speaker Pelosi's House of Representatives. This vote is nothing more than a political stunt. While the House plays games, the Department will continue its critical work of pursuing justice and ensuring safety for all Americans."

Ahead of the vote, Barr and Ross urged Pelosi to postpone the contempt vote, saying the move "is both unnecessarily undermining inter-branch comity and degrading the constitutional separation of powers and its own institutional integrity."

Barr and Ross wrote in a letter to the House speaker that "the Departments have made significant efforts to accommodate requests from the Committee concerning the Census matter. We strongly disagree with any suggestion that our Departments have obstructed this investigated."

House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said in remarks on the House floor on Wednesday that "holding any Cabinet secretary in criminal contempt of Congress is a serious and somber matter — one that I have done everything in my power to avoid."

But, Cummings went on to say, "In this case, the attorney general and Secretary Ross have blatantly obstructed our ability to do congressional oversight into the real reason Secretary Ross was trying — for the first time in 70 years — to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census."

"The Departments have refused to provide key unredacted documents that we need to understand the truth about why they really made this decision," he said, adding, "Instead, they produced thousands of pages that were largely nonresponsive, heavily redacted, or publicly available."

This isn't the first time the full House has taken action in an attempt to enforce congressional subpoenas aimed at administration officials, however.

Last month, the House approved a resolution greenlighting the House Judiciary Committee to go to court to enforce a subpoena for former White House counsel Don McGahn's testimony and of Barr to obtain the unredacted report and evidence from special counsel Robert Mueller. While the resolution authorized the House panel to take its subpoena of Barr to court, an agreement struck between the Judiciary Committee and the Justice Department ahead of the vote meant the committee said it wouldn't take that action so long as the department is cooperating.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the timing of the criminal contempt vote last week, saying, "Next week, the full house will vote on a resolution of criminal contempt for Attorney General Barr and Secretary Ross so we can enforce our subpoenas and get the facts."

The Commerce Department announced last year that a citizenship question would be included in the 2020 census. The move sparked controversy and a high-stakes court battle with critics arguing that asking about citizenship status would lead to a distorted and inaccurate count. Census data serves as the basis for decisions about how to allocate federal resources and draw congressional districts.

This story has been updated with additional development Wednesday.

CNN's David Shortell, Jeremy Herb, Kevin Liptak and Ariane de Vogue contributed to this report.

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