By a 23-14 vote, the House Oversight Committee authorized several subpoenas related to its investigation into the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The vote is an escalation of the showdown between the Trump administration and House Democrats over a key voting rights issue.
“The Trump administration is stonewalling and has left the committee no choice but obtain this information by compulsory process,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) said at the markup of the resolution.
The subpoenas authorized by the committee would require the production of Justice Department and Commerce Department documents related to the push to get the question added the census, as well force testimony from a Justice Department official involved in the effort.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) was the only Republican to join Democrats in voting in favor of authorizing the subpoenas.
Administration officials have balked at answering certain questions from lawmakers about how the question, which stands to discourage immigrant participation in the census, landed on the decennial survey. The administration has pointed to the litigation around the question as reasons not to answer lawmakers’ queries, and has also claimed the right to keep conversations with the White House confidential, even without President Trump formally invoking executive privilege.
Lawmakers also have taken issue with the redactions in key internal communications between the officials who worked to add the question.
On Monday evening, the Commerce Department’s legislative affairs liaison wrote to Cummings defending the agency’s responses so far and requesting that he back down from the subpoena threat.
“In short, the Department has met and will continue to meet its constitutional accommodation obligations,” the official, Michael Platt, wrote in the letter. “The Department respectfully requests that you abstain from considering or issuing a subpoena while our good faith dialogue continues.”
After the vote, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also issued a statement claiming that the Department has been “nothing but cooperative with the committee’s expansive and detailed requests for records.”
The committee’s Republicans, meanwhile, accused their Democratic counterparts of trying to interfere with the court cases examining the question’s presence on the census. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), in bashing Cummings’ move to prepare the subpoenas, argued that “82-year-old Mr. Ross” testified in front of the committee for about six hours a few weeks ago.
Whether the citizenship question stays on the census will ultimately be up to the Supreme Court, which next month will hear arguments on lower courts’ decisions blocking the administration from adding the question.
But investigating how and why the question was added to they decennial survey —which has not asked all of its recipients about citizenship since 1950 — has been a top priority for Oversight Democrats.
An undercount of immigrants would shift political representation and government resources away from their communities. The administration also appears to be laying the groundwork for states and localities to use the citizenship data to exclude noncitizens from redistricting — a massive change to voting rights that would diminish the political power of urban, diverse areas of the country while boosting the electoral advantage of rural, white regions.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross initially claimed that the question was added because of a December 2017 request from the Justice Department, which said the question would improve the Department’s voting rights enforcement. Emails released during the litigation revealed that Ross was pushing for the question from the beginning of Trump’s presidency, and his aides searched for an agency to make a formal request.
The subpoenas authorized Tuesday include requests for unredacted versions of communications between Commerce officials and the Department of Justice in the lead-up to the December request. The committee also approved a subpoena for testimony from John Gore, a Trump-appointed Justice Department official who drafted the request and who, according to Dems, declined to answer 150 of the committee’s questions in an interview earlier this year.
The Oversight Committee is now demanding that he appear for a deposition at which the committee will be seeking answers to 18 of those questions.
The documents the committee is seeking include a so-called “secret memo” that a Commerce official had hand delivered Gore in fall 2017.
Read the resolution below: