Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) broke with his party to vote with the panel’s Democrats.
The high-stakes vote took place just hours after the Justice and Commerce departments announced that President Trump had asserted executive privilege over the subpoenaed documents, which were tied to the Trump administration’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
Wednesday’s vote, which comes just one day after the House voted to empower committee chairmen with more legal authority to enforce their subpoenas, is a further escalation of the battle between the Trump administration and House Democrats investigating the president.
The citizenship question has been hotly contested since Ross announced in March 2018 that it would be included on the 2020 census, stating that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had requested the question in order to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.
In his opening statement, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) hit back at the president’s claim of executive privilege over the documents, calling it “another example of the administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’s mandated responsibilities.”
The chairman said that his committee has obtained evidence indicating that Ross had pursued the addition of a citizenship question to the census before DOJ officials asked for the question and that Trump advisers began discussing the question ahead of the president’s inauguration in 2017.
“Although we have limited information about this scheme, we have been blocked from fully determining the real reason the administration sought to add the citizenship question,” Cummings said. “That is because the Department of Justice and the Department of Commerce have refused to turn over key documents requested by the committee.”
Cummings told reporters after the vote that it was “one of the more sadder days” of his career in Congress. He said that the census is important not just for making sure that states get the amount of federal funds they need and for drawing district maps, but for making sure every hard-working person in America is counted, regardless of citizenship.
“The question is, what are they getting back, and the census allows them to get their fair share of the dollars that they put in,” Cummings said.
And he echoed an impassioned speech he delivered earlier during Wednesday’s hearing, emphasizing the importance of his committee’s efforts to conduct oversight on the Trump administration.
“Two hundred to 300 years from now, people will look back on this moment. And they will ask the question, what did you do? What did you do when there was an effort to undercount your neighbors?” Cummings said.
“What we’ve got to say is that we stood up,” he continued.
In a harsh statement released after the vote, Ross went after Democrats, claiming that they have “maintained their shameless, weekly attacks on this Administration without consideration for the truth.” “By holding a contempt vote, the committee has already demonstrated its scorn for the Constitution, continually refusing to engage in the constitutionally-mandated accommodation process. That is far more serious than the empty stunt the committee performed today,” the secretary said.
And DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement that the vote “undermines Congress’s credibility with the American people.”
“Despite the committee’s political games, the department will remain focused on its critical work safeguarding the American people and upholding the rule of law,” Kupec said.
Republicans who voted against the contempt measures claimed that the vote is an attempt by Democrats to influence the Supreme Court’s current consideration of whether to allow the citizenship question on the census. They noted that past versions of the census have included the question and that it remains on a more frequently distributed survey that goes out to a smaller percentage of the American population.
“How do we get to the point today where we’re going to hold the secretary of Commerce, the attorney general of the United States in contempt because we don’t want to ask the question that everyone in the country thinks we’re already asking and in fact we are?” asked Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the ranking member of the committee.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and a member of the Oversight Committee, said after the vote that it is “basically a partisan attack on the president and everybody else” and “has a chilling effect on cooperation with with Congress.”
“This has been consistent with every hearing from Michael Cohen on down that this Democrat majority are just intent on trying to hold de facto impeachment hearings without actually doing impeachment,” Meadows told reporters.
Democrats pushed back against those claims, citing evidence that indicated that conversations about a citizenship question on the 2020 census dated as far back as the days of the Trump campaign. And they pointed to data and testimony from experts, including those at the Census Bureau, that states that asking about citizenship would lead to an inaccurate population count.
Census data is used for allocating federal funds, drawing congressional districts and more, meaning an inaccurate count of the population could impact those items.
GOP lawmakers on Wednesday also attempted to delay the vote, claiming that Cummings broke committee rules by announcing on Monday the vote scheduled for Wednesday. But the chairman said that he checked with the House parliamentarian and that he believed no bylaws had been violated.
The debate over the contempt votes dragged on for hours, and Cummings pushed the vote itself to later in the afternoon to allow members of his committee to read the administration’s letters asserting executive privilege over the court documents.
“By proceeding with today’s vote, you have abandoned the accommodation process with respect to your requests and subpoenas for documents concerning the secretary’s decision to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote in a letter to Cummings.
And Charles Rathburn, the acting assistant secretary for legislative and intergovernmental affairs at the Commerce Department, wrote in a nearly identical letter to Cummings that the department “regrets that you have made this assertion necessary by your insistence upon scheduling a premature contempt vote.”
Cummings had offered late Tuesday to delay the vote if the agencies handed over unredacted copies of certain documents lawmakers had requested by Wednesday. But both departments rejected that deal, with the DOJ claiming that some of the information in the materials, such as attorney-client communications, is protected.
And both agencies pointed to thousands of pages of documents they had already supplied to the committee, as well as other testimony by current and former department officials, in showing they were complying with the subpoenas.
Cummings disputed that characterization on Wednesday, saying that many of the documents lawmakers were given were already publicly available, heavily redacted or didn’t fall under the scope of the subpoenas his committee issued back in April.
The committee vote also came one day after the House authorized House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nalder (D-NY) to go to court to enforce subpoenas against Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn in relation to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
Nadler has indicated that he won’t pursue a legal case against Barr at this time after he and the DOJ struck a deal to start allowing members of his committee to see some of the Mueller materials. But the chairman has said that he will seek a court order against McGahn.
That resolution also gave committee chairmen more legal powers in enforcing subpoenas. That opens the door for Cummings to go straight to a group of top lawmakers for permission to request a court order to enforce the subpoenas without the entire House voting on it.
An Oversight panel spokesperson told The Hill that Cummings will consult with House leadership about going to that group of lawmakers, known as the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, about potential court action.
The Trump administration’s announcement that the 2020 census would include a question on citizenship status has faced intense scrutiny and several legal challenges.
Further questions were raised about the citizenship query last month when the American Civil Liberties Union, which has challenged the question in court, filed new evidence in a New York federal court alleging that a late GOP redistricting strategist played a previously undisclosed role in the orchestration of the question.
That evidence undercuts the Trump administration’s argument that there was no political motivation behind adding the citizenship question. But officials have disputed this new evidence,
Three federal judges have ruled against the question’s addition to the census. However, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority seems poised to rule in the Trump administration’s favor.