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House Oversight Committee votes to subpoena testimony and documents related to citizenship question on 2020 Census

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) oversees the committee's markup on a resolution issuing subpoenas to Justice Department officials and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in connection with the 2020 Census. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The House Oversight and Reform Committee voted Tuesday to compel the Trump administration to provide more information on its decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.

The 23-to-14 vote authorizes committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) to issue subpoenas for a deposition of John Gore, principal deputy assistant attorney general, and to Attorney General William P. Barr and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross for documents related to the decision. One Republican, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), voted with the Democrats.

It comes three weeks before the Supreme Court is set to consider whether the question will be allowed on forms that every U.S. household will be required to fill out next year. Two federal judges have struck down the question, saying Ross’s actions in adding the question were in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

The committee met with Gore last month on the matter, but Cummings said he refused to answer more than 150 questions, citing ongoing litigation.

Cummings slammed that rationale Tuesday, saying, “The administration may not withhold information from Congress because of separate litigation. That is not a valid legal argument. The Supreme Court has rejected this claim repeatedly. It is not the law, and it would lead to absurd results.” He added that the Justice Department routinely conducted investigations of the Obama administration when separate litigation was proceeding.

A key issue is how the citizenship question came to be added. Ross originally told Congress his decision to add it came solely in response to a December 2017 request from the Justice Department, but lawsuits later produced emails showing that Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, had been pushing for the question for months before that.

After the vote, Ross said in a statement that the Commerce Department “has been nothing but cooperative with the Committee’s expansive and detailed requests for records,” adding, “As of today, we have turned over 11,500 pages of documents to the Committee, and I voluntarily testified in front of the same Committee for nearly seven hours on this issue two weeks ago.”

At that hearing, House Democrats pressed Ross to explain why his previous sworn testimony conflicted with government records and asked whether he had lied under oath.

Cummings said Tuesday that many of documents the government has turned over are already public, are heavily redacted, or are missing altogether.

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House Republicans focused their arguments Tuesday more on the merits of the question itself than on inquiries about its provenance, and accused Democrats of seeking to sway the Supreme Court decision.

“The Democrats want to interfere with the court case,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the panel’s ranking Republican. “Why don’t Democrats want to know if you’re a citizen of this country or not?’’

A question about citizenship has not been included on the decennial short-form census since 1950, but the American Community Survey, which goes each year to a small sampling of households, does ask the question.

Opponents of the question say it is a political maneuver by the Trump administration, and that its inclusion, particularly at a time when noncitizens feel targeted by the government, will deter many immigrants and their family members from participating. A reduced response rate would threaten the count’s accuracy and could harm people who live in areas with large immigrant populations. Census data is used to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding and to determine apportionment and redistricting.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the matter by June, shortly before the survey forms are due to go to the printer.

Democrats have focused on emails showing that Ross discussed adding the citizenship question with Trump administration officials early in 2017, including then-White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon and Kris Kobach, who was Kansas secretary of state.In the emails, Ross expressed frustration that it was not happening quickly enough, and said he would discuss it with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Tuesday’s vote came a day after President Trump said in a tweet that the census would be “meaningless” and a waste of billions of dollars without the citizenship question.

Tom Wolf, counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, applauded the resolution.

“When it comes to the Trump Administration’s defense of the citizenship question, it’s been nothing but falsehoods all the way down,” he said Tuesday. “The federal courts have already pierced through many of these and determined conclusively that there’s no good reason for Secretary Ross to add a citizenship question to the census. Congress is now poised to get to the bottom of all of this. What Congress finds will only strengthen the conclusion that this question has no place on our census.”