The House of Representatives voted largely along party lines on Wednesday evening to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt of Congress after they failed to comply with subpoenas for information about the Trump administration’s push to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census.
The 230-to-198 vote marks the first time since Democrats took the House majority in January that they have elected to deploy criminal contempt— one of the harshest rebukes at their disposal—against officials from President Donald Trump’s administration.
Four moderate freshman Democratic lawmakers crossed the aisle to vote with all House Republicans to reject the contempt measure. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a former Republican who is now an independent, voted with the overwhelming majority of Democrats to pass contempt.
Criminal contempt is a symbolic but toothless punishment for Barr and Ross: Upon passage from the House, the citations are sent to U.S. attorneys at the Department of Justice—which Barr runs; the top-level officials are all but guaranteed to face no serious legal repercussions.
However, Ross and Barr now find themselves in the small club of administration officials to be held in contempt of Congress. The most recent one was Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s attorney general, who was targeted by House Republicans over the so-called “Fast and Furious” scandal in 2012.
House Democrats have been under intense pressure from their base to flex their oversight muscles and respond to the Trump administration in a tougher way. While liberals still await a strong rebuke of Barr with respect to the stonewalling and slow-walking of Democrats’ Russia-related investigations, party leaders hailed Wednesday’s vote as an oversight win.
“I do not take this decision lightly,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD). “Holding any Cabinet Secretary in criminal contempt of Congress is a serious and somber matter—one that I have done everything in my power to avoid.”
“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.”
The Trump administration’s move to add a question to the census asking if respondents were U.S. citizens sparked broad outrage and suspicion that the administration was seeking to depress minority participation in the census for Republicans’ political gain. After repeated losses in court to protect the addition of the question, Trump announced in July his administration would essentially suspend the effort to get the question on census forms.