House Committee Sues Barr, Ross Over 2020 Census Documents

Nov 26, 2019
In The News

WASHINGTON — The House Oversight and Reform Committee on Tuesday sued William P. Barr, the attorney general, and Wilbur L. Ross Jr., the commerce secretary, for refusing to produce subpoenaed documents regarding President Trump’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, is an escalation of a monthslong dispute over the panel’s efforts to investigate the Trump administration’s effort to alter the decennial survey to ask 2020 respondents whether they are citizens. The government abandoned that effort after the Supreme Court in June blocked the question from being added, rejecting the administration’s stated reason for the effort as “contrived.”

The case comes amid other federal court rulings this week that have rejected the Trump administration’s attempts to stonewall congressional oversight, including in the impeachment inquiry, in which federal judges have said the White House and federal agencies cannot withhold key witnesses and documents in matters the legislative branch is investigating.

House Democrats have continued to investigate the census matter, arguing that they need to determine whether Congress should enact legislation to prevent the administration from employing similar tactics in the future. Democrats believe that the documents will show that the administration’s stated rationale for collecting the data — to better enforce the Voting Rights Act — was a cover story invented to mask a politically motivated attempt to diminish Democratic power by discouraging noncitizens from completing the survey. States rely on raw population data, rather than eligible voters, to draw House districts and to determine access to federal social welfare programs.

“Attorney General Barr and Commerce Secretary Ross have doubled down on their open defiance of the rule of law and refused to produce even a single additional document in response to our Committee’s bipartisan subpoenas,” said Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York and the chairwoman of the committee. “President Trump and his aides are not above the law. They cannot be allowed to disregard and degrade the authority of Congress to fulfill our core constitutional legislative and oversight responsibilities.”

The panel is seeking unredacted documents concerning crucial developments in the process of adding the citizenship question and communications between the Commerce Department and the Department of Justice. The documents “go to the heart of the committee’s investigative interests,” Ms. Maloney previously told lawmakers on the panel.

The lawsuit is the latest front in the fight between the House and the executive branch. The House voted in July to hold Mr. Barr and Mr. Ross in criminal contempt of Congress for their refusal to turn over those documents.

A spokesman for the Commerce Department said in a statement that the lawsuit “lacks merit” and that the department has operated in “good faith” with the committee, noting several current officials, including Mr. Ross, have testified before it.

Officials at the Justice Departments did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Agency officials have previously argued they have turned over many materials in response to the subpoena, but had to hold back certain information to protect internal discussions.

House Democrats leading the investigation have been successful so far in eliciting testimony and documents from Census Bureau officials as well as a member Mr. Trump’s transition team, both in their own inquiry and through the Supreme Court case. That evidence showed that adding a citizenship question was pitched to the Trump campaign and was discussed by White House officials in early 2017. Mr. Ross sought to add a citizenship question before the Justice Department request, and personally sought its assistance in September 2017.

Christa Jones, the Census Bureau’s chief of staff, additionally told House investigators that she had been in touch with a Republican redistricting strategist to discuss the effort to add the question, and that he had expressed interest in using the question for what he called “the Republican redistricting effort.”

Ms. Jones testified to investigators that she told the strategist, Thomas B. Hofeller, that adding a citizenship question would “have a negative impact” on the response rate to the census.

The upcoming census begins in Alaska in January 2020 and across the rest of the country in April 2020.