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House votes to hold Barr and Ross in criminal contempt

In this image, Barr and Ross stand outside in front of a microphone. Barr adjusts his glasses.
Wilbur Ross looks on as William Barr delivers remarks on citizenship and the 2020 Census on July 11. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The House voted 230-198 to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt of Congress on Wednesday for withholding subpoenaed materials related to the failed 2020 Census citizenship question.

Why it matters: Democrats believe the administration's reason for attempting to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census is "a cover for a politically motivated attempt to eliminate noncitizens from population statistics ... [thereby] diminishing Democratic power," the NYT reports. Wednesday's vote follows a House Oversight Committee decision last month.

Where it stands: President Trump caved on adding the citizenship question last week, stunning figures in the conservative legal community after he publicly weighed an executive order to push the question forward.

  • The Supreme Court ruled last month that the Trump administration can't add a citizenship question to the Census unless it does a better job of explaining why the question is necessary.
  • A 2015 study conducted by a now-deceased GOP gerrymandering strategist concluded that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census would "clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats" and "advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites," according to court documents filed in a legal challenge.

How we got here: House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings said the Justice and Commerce departments did not fully comply with subpoena requests related to departmental decision-making on the citizenship question.

  • The DOJ said those documents were shielded by executive privilege asserted by Trump.
  • Ross has defended the citizenship question as necessary to enhance the 1965 Voting Rights Act, despite the Census Bureau's own analysis that it could scare households with noncitizens into low response rates.
  • Cummings released a statement on Wednesday in support of the House resolution:
"I do not take this decision lightly.  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 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."
— Chairman Cummings’ statement made on the House floor

What's next: After Barr and Ross are referred to the Justice Department for prosecution, there is no real risk that the DOJ will take action, since Barr heads the agency. The fight over this citizenship question could take years and potentially outlast Trump's current term, based on legal precedent from the Obama administration.

Go deeper: Trump administration admits defeat on citizenship question