After many, many threats, the House finally followed through and held Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt of Congress on Wednesday, according to Politico. It’s only the second time in history that Congress has voted to hold a cabinet member in criminal contempt.
The contempt vote, which serves as a formal request for the Justice Department to prosecute Barr and Ross, was provoked by the cabinet members’ refusal to comply with subpoenas issued by the House. The House had asked Barr to turn over documents related to the case involving whether the 2020 census would include a citizenship question, and he ignored the requests.
“I do not take this decision lightly,” said House Oversight Committee chairman Elijah Cummings said in a statement. “Holding any secretary in criminal contempt of Congress is a serious and sober matter, one that I have done everything in my power to avoid.”
“But in the case of the attorney general and Secretary Ross, they 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,” Cummings added.
Of course, nothing is going to result from this. Barr himself is in charge of the Justice Department, so it’s not like he’s going to take action to prosecute himself. And it’s still unclear whether the House plans to go to court to enforce the subpoenas.
Democrats have threatened to hold a contempt vote quite a few times since taking control of the House in January, but this is the first time they’ve followed through on it. They previously said they would hold a contempt vote after Barr refused to turn over the full report by special counsel Robert Mueller to Congress.
The DOJ said that because President Trump hastily declared executive privilege over the subpoenaed documents before the contempt vote, the DOJ couldn’t turn them over.
“We strongly disagree with any suggestion that our departments have obstructed this investigation,” Barr and Ross wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “It is unfortunate that the House has scheduled a vote to hold two sitting members of the president’s Cabinet in contempt of Congress given the clear record of cooperation.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham called the vote “ridiculous” and “lawless.”
“House Democrats know they have no legal right to these documents, but their shameful and cynical politics know no bounds,” Grisham said in a statement.
House Democrats have good reason to believe that Barr and Ross were lying about their true reasons for refusing to turn over the documents. Files of the late Republican National Committee’s redistricting chairman Dr. Thomas Hofeller contained suggestions that adding a citizenship question to the census would lead to underrepresentation in Democratic districts.
The Supreme Court ruled last month that the census cannot include a question about citizenship. But that didn’t stop Trump’s attempts to get the question added. His latest gambit is a threat to use an executive order to add the question, something that could spark a constitutional crisis.