WASHINGTON — The House is expected to vote Wednesday evening to hold Attorney General William P. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt of Congress for their refusal to turn over key documents related to the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The citations for two cabinet officials would breathe new life into a dispute that has touched all three branches of government over why exactly Trump administration officials pushed to ask census respondents if they were American citizens and what that question’s impact would be.
Democrats investigating the issue believe that the documents and testimony being shielded would confirm that the administration’s long-stated rationale for collecting the data — to better enforce the Voting Rights Act — was merely a cover for a politically motivated attempt to eliminate noncitizens from population statistics used to draw political boundaries, thereby diminishing Democratic representation.
The Supreme Court hinted at that theory last month when it rejected the administration’s stated reason for adding the question as “contrived” in the court’s ruling on a lawsuit challenging the question. And in an unusual twist, President Trump himself all but confirmed those suspicions earlier this month when he said of the citizenship question, “You need it for Congress, for districting.” Last week he announced his government would give up the effort in light of the high court’s decision.
Democrats said Wednesday that their investigation would continue regardless, in an effort to vindicate Congress’s oversight authority and potentially neuter future attempts to discourage participation by noncitizens in the census.
“That objective is still there, the president has not repudiated that objective, so getting to the bottom of that, to expose the evidence to demonstrate the true agenda of the executive is still valid,” said Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont and a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which is investigating the census issue.
To that end, Wednesday’s contempt vote would formally authorize the committee to take Mr. Barr and Mr. Ross to federal court to seek judicial enforcement of subpoenas for the material in question. A lawsuit is expected in the coming weeks.
It would also level a stinging personal rebuke to Mr. Barr and Mr. Ross by formally referring them to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. There is no real risk the department would pursue the case — Mr. Barr is the head of the Justice Department — but only once before has Congress held in contempt a sitting member of a presidential cabinet: Eric H. Holder Jr., President Barack Obama’s first attorney general.
The Justice and Commerce Departments maintain that in this case they have sought to fully cooperate within legal bounds and largely complied with the Oversight Committee’s requests. Democrats, they argue, are more interested in a political clash that can attract media attention and embarrass the administration than they are in actual fact finding — and sought to interfere in the civil litigation over the question.
Republicans have backed them up at each step, arguing Democrats are abusing oversight powers to contest a reasonable policy goal.
“The citizenship question is nothing but common sense,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top ranking Republican on the Oversight Committee.
It is not unusual for Congresses and White Houses of opposing parties to face off over oversight demands, haggling over documents and witnesses. But there is scant precedent for the volume and intensity of the disputes between this Democratic House and Mr. Trump, whose administration has taken a dim view of Congress’s authority to compel executive branch cooperation.
The House Judiciary Committee, for instance, has been locked in a dispute with the Justice Department and White House over access to evidence underlying Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian election interference and access to key government officials who served as witnesses to the former special counsel. It may soon spawn additional contempt votes and court action.
And an effort by the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee to obtain Mr. Trump’s personal and business tax returns has already been redirected to federal court after the Treasury Department refused to comply with requests and subpoenas for the tax information.
Wednesday would mark the first time the House actually voted to hold a government official in contempt in one of the fights. The Judiciary Committee recommended that the House do so with Mr. Barr in the dispute over Mr. Mueller’s evidence. But the two sides struck a last-minute deal to avoid a formal contempt vote and the House merely voted to authorize court action to enforce the subpoena.
The only other direct precedent for Tuesday’s came in 2012, when Republicans then in control of the House held Mr. Holder in contempt in connection with requests for information about the botched “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking investigation. Republicans ended up suing the Obama administration in the case and ultimately prevailed, but the case took years to wind its way thought the courts and could have gone on longer if the Obama administration had continued to appeal.
The outcome in the census case could take just as long, potentially outlasting Mr. Trump’s term unless the two sides reach an agreement.
The Democrats specifically say the two cabinet secretaries “obstructed and delayed” an Oversight Committee investigation that began in January. Mr. Ross provided sworn testimony to the committee in March 2018 in which he said he had decided to add the question “solely” based on a December 2017 request from the Justice Department asking for data to better enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But documents revealed in court and evidence collected by the committee in interviews and document requests indicated that the decision may have been more complicated. The possibility of adding a citizenship question, long a dream of Republicans active in redistricting fights, was pitched to the Trump campaign, the evidence showed, and was discussed by White House officials in early 2017. Mr. Ross himself sought to add a citizenship question before the Justice Department request and personally sought out its assistance in September 2017.
When Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the Oversight Committee chairman, issued subpoenas for documents related to departmental decision making, neither the Justice Department nor the Commerce Department fully complied, he said, producing records that were heavily blacked out or already public.
The debate over the citizenship question is not an academic one. Government experts have estimated that asking respondents their citizenship status would scare many immigrants away from responding to the census, which counts all people living in the United States, not just citizens. It could ultimately result in an undercount of about 6.5 million people, they say.
States rely on raw population data, rather than eligible voters, to draw House districts and access federal social welfare programs. Democrats were fearful that a significant undercount could reduce their representation and affect how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending were distributed.