The chairman of the House Oversight Committee said Monday that the panel would vote to hold Attorney General William P. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for failing to comply with a bipartisan subpoena for documents on a Trump administration plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The panel’s chairman, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), announced the move in letters to Barr and Ross on Monday. He gave them until Thursday to comply and raised the possibility of delaying the vote if they cooperate.
“Unfortunately, your actions are part of a pattern,” Cummings wrote to Barr and Ross in the letters. “The Trump administration has been engaged in one of the most unprecedented coverups since Watergate, extending from the White House to multiple federal agencies and departments of the government and across numerous investigations.”
If Barr and Ross fail to comply, a vote on contempt could come next week in the committee, according to Democratic officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private talks.
In a statement, the Commerce Department noted that Ross has previously testified before the committee and that the department has turned over nearly 14,000 pages of documents to the panel. It accused the committee of seeking to “desperately and improperly influence the Supreme Court.”
The escalation between the Oversight Committee and Trump’s two Cabinet members comes just weeks after the House Judiciary Committee also voted to hold Barr in contempt for refusing to turn over special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s full, unredacted report. The full House is expected to vote on that contempt citation next week.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) had been pressing Democratic leadership for that vote so Democrats could take Barr to civil court to try to force his compliance.
Democrats on the judiciary panel are hoping to do the same with Donald McGahn, the former White House counsel who refused to testify or turn over documents. McGahn was a central witness in the Mueller report.
Democratic leaders could put the citations together in a massive contempt vote next week.
In a 23-to-14 vote in April, the Oversight Committee authorized Cummings to issue subpoenas for a deposition of John Gore, principal deputy assistant attorney general, and to Barr and Ross for documents related to the 2020 Census decision.
But the Justice Department said it would not comply with the subpoena for Gore to testify about the question, and the Trump administration has vowed to stonewall all House subpoenas. In his Monday letter to Barr, Cummings cited the attorney general’s “unprecedented order” to Gore to defy the subpoena as part of the reason for the upcoming votes.
Democratic lawmakers have accused the Trump administration of stonewalling their efforts to investigate Ross’s March 2018 decision to add the citizenship question, which the government says it needs to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Last week, new evidence emerged suggesting that the citizenship question was crafted specifically to give an electoral advantage to Republicans and whites.
The evidence was found in the files of the prominent Republican redistricting strategist Thomas Hofeller after his death in August. According to lawyers challenging the question, it reveals that Hofeller “played a significant role in orchestrating the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 Decennial Census to create a structural electoral advantage for, in his own words, ‘Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.’ ”
The lawyers also argued that Trump administration officials purposely obscured Hofeller’s role in court proceedings.
A hearing on the new evidence is scheduled in federal court in Manhattan on Wednesday.
Opponents of the question have argued that it will suppress responses to the survey among immigrant communities, resulting in an undercount in the areas where they live.
The population count from the Decennial Census is used to allocate $800 billion a year in federal funding and determine congressional representation and redistricting.
A key issue in the challenges to the citizenship question is how it came to be added. Ross originally told Congress that 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.
In March of this year Democrats on the Oversight Committee grilled him about it extensively, with several asking whether he had lied under oath, and one demanding his resignation.
The committee also met with Gore that month on the matter, but Cummings said he refused to answer more than 150 questions, citing ongoing litigation.
Three federal judges have struck down the Census question, saying Ross’s actions in adding it were in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
The Supreme Court heard the case April 23. Evidence in the case concluded with oral arguments that day, and it appeared that the conservative majority seemed inclined to agree with the government that the decision to add the question was within the authority of the commerce secretary.