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Barr, Ross face contempt vote over census citizenship question

AG and commerce secretary have until Thursday to answer subpoenas

House Oversight and Reform Democrats are threatening to hold Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, above, and Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Oversight and Reform Democrats are threatening to hold Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, above, and Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Oversight and Reform Democrats threatened to vote on holding Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress, accusing the pair Monday of rebuffing investigations into the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., accused the administration of “one of the most unprecedented cover-ups since Watergate,” in a letter Monday to Barr and another to Ross. He gave them until Thursday to answer several subpoenas issued earlier this year.

The committee has been probing the 2018 decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census and Monday’s letters argued documents revealed last week by advocates show a Republican operative pushed the question to redraw congressional maps for partisan gain.

The letters argued “the real reason the Trump Administration sought to add a citizenship question was not to help enforce the Voting Rights Act at all but rather to gerrymander congressional districts in overtly racist, partisan and unconstitutional ways.”

The Justice and Commerce departments did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The latest uproar comes after advocates filed documents in litigation in federal court in New York over the citizenship question, indicating late conservative redistricting strategist Thomas Hofeller served as a source of the citizenship question, and encouraged administration officials to add the question. The advocates contend Hofeller sought the data to help draw congressional maps based on voting-age citizens rather than all residents.

Several states and civil rights groups have challenged the addition of the question, arguing it would suppress the responses of immigrants to the census. Several trial courts found the administration overstepped its bounds by adding the question and the Trump administration appealed to the Supreme Court.

Advocates have sought a contempt citation against top DOJ civil rights division lawyer John Gore in the district court, along with Ross advisor A. Mark Neuman, over their testimony surrounding Hofeller’s involvement.

The administration has argued in court that the Commerce Department has broad discretion over the citizenship question and the Justice Department needs the data for Voting Rights Act enforcement. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the question before the end of June, when the government has to finalize its census questionnaire.

Plaintiffs in the original case in New York have sought to add the documents to the court record there and begun the process to bring them before the justices. That effort could be subject to government challenge, however. 

The Justice Department late last week pushed back against the revelations. “These unfounded allegations are an unfortunate last-ditch effort to derail the Supreme Court’s consideration of this case,” the department said in a statement.

House Republicans have accused majority Democrats of seeking to interfere with the litigation surrounding the citizenship question, including when they brought Ross in for testimony about the census after the Supreme Court blocked his deposition in the case.

Democrats on the panel have engaged in an escalating conflict with the administration over census oversight, including when Gore defied a committee subpoena to testify in April.

Separately the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines last month to hold Barr in contempt over his noncompliance with a subpoena to produce an unredacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

A Democratic aide said Monday the House will vote June 11 to hold Barr in contempt of Congress.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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