Updated Jun 10, 2019

House Oversight schedules contempt vote for AG Bill Barr, Wilbur Ross

Elijah Cummings. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

House Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) has announced the committee will vote on Wednesday to hold Attorney General Bill Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for refusing to comply with subpoenas related to its investigation of the Census citizenship question.

Between the lines: The announcement comes on the same day that House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler said he had reached a deal to delay a contempt vote for Barr in exchange for the Justice Department turning over underlying documents from the Mueller report. While the Oversight Committee's vote is related to an entirely different subpoena, DOJ's willingness to compromise under threat of contempt may again come into play over the next 48 hours.

Context: In April, the committee issued 3 subpoenas related to its investigation of the citizenship question, a controversy that has now been taken up by the Supreme Court. The Justice Department has blocked Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Gore from testifying, citing the committee's refusal to allow a DOJ lawyer to be present in the same room during Gore's deposition.

The big picture: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross touched off a firestorm last year when he announced the addition of the citizenship question. He told lawmakers that he acted solely at the request of the Justice Department to enhance the Voting Rights Act, but critics say the question is intended to influence the allocation of congressional seats across the country.

  • Court documents filed last month revealed that a study conducted by now-deceased GOP gerrymandering strategist Thomas Hofeller concluded that adding a citizenship question would "clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats" and "advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites."
  • Hofeller, who recently died, went on to help write a draft Justice Department letter that argued the question was essential to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the same argument that Ross has used.

What they're saying:

  • Chairman Cummings: "President Trump declared to the entire country that he is fighting all the subpoenas—even when they are bipartisan and seek information on matters as critical as the Census.  The Trump Administration has demonstrated repeatedly that it is willing to disregard the Constitution, defy decades of clear precedent, and invent frivolous new arguments to delay and obstruct Congress’ oversight authority, and Attorney General Barr and Secretary Ross are complicit in this cover-up."
  • Wilbur Ross: "I never refused to meet with the Chairman.  I did urge him to first provide the information we requested numerous times, and that is why the Committee specifically needs privileged information that the Chairman himself and the litigation process have recognized as confidential. He declined, because the Committee isn’t interested in cooperation - it wants to improperly influence the Supreme Court’s impending decision with media broadsides. ... Let’s remember, in response to the Committee’s requests, the Department has provided 14,000 pages of documents, I have voluntarily testified before the Committee for nearly seven hours, and we have agreed to make three Department witnesses available for interviews in the next two weeks, including one scheduled for tomorrow."

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