WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled House voted Wednesday to hold two top Trump administration officials in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with subpoenas related to a decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The House voted, 230-198, to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt. The vote, a political blow to the Trump administration, is largely symbolic because the Justice Department is unlikely to prosecute the two men.
The action marks an escalation of Democratic efforts to use their House majority to aggressively investigate the inner workings of the Trump administration.
President Donald Trump abandoned the citizenship question last week after the Supreme Court said the administration's justification for the question "seems to have been contrived." Trump directed agencies to try to compile the information using existing databases.
The White House called the vote "ridiculous" and "yet another lawless attempt to harass the president and his administration."
The Justice and Commerce departments have produced more than 31,000 pages of documents to the House regarding the census issue, and senior officials from both agencies, including Ross, have spoken on the record about the matter, the White House said, adding that Democrats continue to demand documents that the White House contends are subject to executive privilege.
"House Democrats know they have no legal right to these documents, but their shameful and cynical politics know no bounds," White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.
Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said the contempt vote was an important step to assert Congress' constitutional authority to serve as a check on executive power.
"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," Cummings said during House debate. "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."
While Ross and other officials have claimed the sole reason they wanted to add the citizenship question was to enforce the Voting Rights Act, "we now know that claim was nothing but a pretext," Cummings said. "The Supreme Court said that."
At the direction of Barr and Ross, "the departments of Justice and Commerce have been engaged in a campaign to subvert our laws and the process Congress put in place to maintain the integrity of the census," Cummings said.
The contempt resolution "is about protecting our democracy, protecting the integrity of this body. It's bigger than the census," he said
Ross called the vote a public relations "stunt" that further demonstrates Democrats' "unending quest to generate headlines instead of operating in good faith with our department."
Democrats prefer to "play political games rather than help lead the country" and "have made every attempt to ascribe evil motivations to everyday functions of government," Ross said.
Ross told the oversight committee that the March 2018 decision to add the question was based on a Justice Department request to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Democrats disputed that, citing documents unearthed last month suggesting that a push to draw legislative districts in overtly partisan and racist ways was the real reason the administration wanted to include the question.
Democrats feared that adding the question would reduce participation in immigrant-heavy communities and result in a severe undercount of minority voters. They have pressed for specific documents to determine Ross' motivation and contend the administration has declined to provide the material despite repeated requests.
"The real issue we should be debating" is why Democrats are afraid to ask how many citizens live in the United States, said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky. Contrary to Democrats' claims, Ross and other officials have cooperated with the oversight panel and provided thousands of documents, Comer said.
"If the Democrats can't impeach President Trump, they will instead hold his Cabinet in contempt of Congress," he said. "This is just another episode in political theater."
In a letter late Wednesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Barr and Ross asked Democrats to postpone the vote, saying they have shown a "clear record of cooperation" with Congress. The contempt vote "is both unnecessarily undermining" relations between the two branches and "degrading" Congress' "own institutional integrity," they wrote.
Trump has pledged to "fight all the subpoenas" issued by Congress and says he won't work on legislative priorities, such as infrastructure, until Congress halts investigations of his administration.