By Jan Wolfe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt for defying congressional subpoenas related to the U.S. census.
The measure, which passed 230-198, was a response to the cabinet members’ failure to produce documents requested by House Democrats as part of an investigation into whether the Trump administration attempted to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census that would discriminate against racial minorities.
Four Democrats voted against the measure, while no Republicans supported it. Justin Amash, an independent congressman from Michigan who recently left the Republican Party, voted in favour of the resolution.
Legal experts said a criminal contempt vote against the two Trump cabinet members is likely to be little more than symbolic since the charges would be referred to Barr’s Justice Department.
Still, the manoeuvre intensified a Democratic assault on President Donald Trump’s stonewalling of congressional probes.
Earlier on Wednesday, Barr and Ross urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to delay the vote, saying she should “allow the constitutionally mandated accommodation process to continue.”
“House Democrats never sought to have a productive relationship with the Trump administration, and today’s PR stunt further demonstrates their unending quest to generate headlines instead of operating in good faith with our department,” Ross said in a statement issued after the vote.
The U.S. Supreme Court last month blocked Trump’s initial effort to add the citizenship question. He then planned an executive order to add it to the census, but later dropped the idea.
The Republican president and Democrats in control of the House are locked in a political battle over the legislature’s power to hold the executive to account. Trump and members of his inner circle have repeatedly ignored official demands and requests from Congress for documents and testimony.
“Holding any cabinet secretary in criminal contempt of Congress is a serious and sombre matter – one that I have done everything in my power to avoid,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Democratic chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which is conducting the census investigation.
“But in this case, the attorney general and Secretary Ross have 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,” he added.
(Reporting by Sarah Lynch; writing by David Shepardson; editing by Dan Grebler, Diane Craft and G Crosse)