WASHINGTON — A House committee voted on Wednesday to recommend that two cabinet secretaries be held in contempt of Congress, hours after President Trump invoked executive privilege to block disclosure of crucial documents on the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee’s action against Attorney General William P. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was the culmination of a monthslong dispute over the panel’s efforts to compel testimony from top administration officials and secure documents related to the census question. The vote was mostly along party lines, with only one Republican supporting it: Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, the sole member of his party in Congress to call for Mr. Trump’s impeachment.
It was the latest front in an escalating conflict between Mr. Trump and the Democratic House as lawmakers step up oversight of the government and the executive branch moves to keep its internal deliberations confidential. The fight could result in a lengthy court battle over the ill-defined line between those rival constitutional powers.
At issue on Wednesday was a politically fraught battle over the committee’s attempts to investigate the Trump administration’s decision to ask 2020 census respondents whether they are citizens, an issue that has gone all the way to the Supreme Court. The court is expected to decide the legality of the question within weeks.
Democrats have charged that the move is a politically motivated attempt by Republicans to intimidate undocumented immigrants and other noncitizens. That could lead to census undercounts and less representation for immigrant-heavy districts, which tend to vote Democratic. Conservatives say it is reasonable to ask how many residents are citizens.
Wednesday’s move could lay the groundwork for the panel to swiftly go to court to seek to enforce its subpoenas, after the House moved on Tuesday to empower committees to do so without a vote of the full chamber. But Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland and the committee chairman, gave no indication of when he might take that step, saying he would have to consult with House leaders.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi later said it was up to the committee to decide how quickly to push forward. “We’ll see what they want to do,” Ms. Pelosi said. “We’re ready.”
Before the contempt vote, the Justice Department informed Mr. Cummings that Mr. Trump had decided to invoke his secrecy powers because Mr. Cummings had “chosen to go forward with an unnecessary and premature contempt vote.”
“We must protect the integrity of the census, and we will stand up for Congress’s authority under the Constitution to conduct meaningful oversight,” Mr. Cummings said, calling the privilege claim “another example of the administration’s blanket defiance of Congress’s constitutionally mandated responsibilities.”
“This begs the question,” Mr. Cummings added, “what is being hidden?”
Mr. Trump defended the push to include the citizenship question: “When a census goes out, you should find out whether or not — and you have the right to ask whether or not — somebody is a citizen of the United States,” he said as he met with Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda.
But on the committee, Democrats demanded to see the deliberations behind the question. In their investigation, they said, the administration had stonewalled deposition requests and provided documents that did not answer their questions.
“We’ve reached our limit,” Representative Stephen F. Lynch, Democrat of Massachusetts, said as he brandished a blacked-out page with no text visible as an example of the heavily redacted material the Commerce Department had sent.
After the vote, Mr. Ross called the Democrats’ action part of a series of “shameless, weekly attacks on this administration.” Kerri Kupec, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said the vote “defies logic” given the department’s efforts to cooperate with the committee, and “undermines Congress’s credibility with the American people.”
In separate letters from the Justice and Commerce Departments, administration officials maintained that they had already turned over many materials in response to the subpoena, but had to keep certain information confidential to protect the candor of internal and attorney-client discussions. Still, both letters made it clear that the administration was retaliating for the panel’s insistence on issuing contempt citations for Mr. Barr and Mr. Ross.
“The department regrets that you have made this assertion necessary by your insistence upon scheduling a premature contempt vote,” the Commerce Department letter said.
The Justice Department also sent Mr. Cummings a memo Mr. Barr had sent Mr. Trump arguing that the executive branch had a “strong interest” in keeping the materials secret, while Congress had not established that the information was critical to its “legitimate legislative functions.”
There are few legal precedents about where to draw the line between Congress’s oversight power and the president’s authority to keep information secret. Past disputes have largely been resolved through negotiations and accommodations, so the matter never reached the Supreme Court.
But the fights across a range of fronts — including the president’s tax returns, how some of his associates obtained security clearances and underlying evidence from the inquiry by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III — have raised the prospect of litigation that could be appealed all the way to the highest court. Such rulings could provide a clearer understanding of the law, but the fight could go on so long that it would last beyond Mr. Trump’s term.
The House voted on Tuesday to authorize the Judiciary Committee to seek a court order forcing the executive branch to comply with two subpoenas related to the Mueller investigation, and it explicitly empowered committees to file such litigation over other subpoenas without votes of the full House. But it has not voted to hold any Trump official in contempt.
The fight centers on liberals’ suspicions that the census question could be a ploy to tilt the once-a-decade reapportionment of House seats. The Census Bureau has estimated that including the question would lead to a 5.8 percent decline in response rates from noncitizens, which Democrats fear would favor Republicans during the drawing of new House maps and deprive some states of federal resources. Apportionment of House districts has been based on raw population, not the number of eligible voters.
“I want to know why people like Kris Kobach, with a résumé of voter suppression techniques, have their fingerprints all over the most sensitive census operations that we have as a government,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, said as a bitter debate over the contempt citations unfolded between Republicans and Democrats on the panel. “This determines who is here. This determines who has power in the United States.”
In sworn testimony before Congress, Mr. Ross said he had decided to add the question “solely” in response to a Justice Department request in December 2017 for data to help it enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But emails disclosed during the litigation showed that Mr. Ross had begun discussing the addition of the question several months before that, and that Mr. Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and architect of strict voter identification laws, had discussed doing so during Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. Three federal trial judges have ruled that the evidence in the record demonstrates that Mr. Ross was dissembling.
New evidence from the computer files of a deceased Republican strategist suggests that the administration’s actual reason was to collect information that might allow states to draw voting districts counting only eligible voters rather than all residents, as is the current practice. That would, the strategist wrote, “be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”
On Wednesday night, groups challenging the addition of the question asked the Supreme Court to return the case to a trial judge in New York to assess the new evidence.
“If ever there were a case that should be decided on the basis of a true and complete record, it is this one,” the groups’ brief said. “The decennial census is one of the United States government’s most important constitutional responsibilities, and even an appearance that the government has manipulated the census for partisan and racially discriminatory purposes would undermine public confidence in our representative democracy.”
The administration has said that census forms must be printed by June, but the groups said the real deadline is October, leaving time for further legal proceedings.
Republicans argued that Democrats were rushing the contempt citations in an attempt to pre-empt the Supreme Court and possibly influence its ruling.
“You are so concerned the Supreme Court’s going to rule on this that you’ve got to get it done before that happens,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee. “Why don’t the Democrats want to know how many citizens are in the country?”
Wednesday’s actions were the second time this year that a committee has recommended members of Mr. Trump’s cabinet be held in contempt of Congress. The Judiciary Committee sought a contempt resolution against Mr. Barr for his refusal to provide the panel an unredacted version of the Mueller report as well as the evidence that supported the special counsel’s conclusions.
House leaders decided for now against voting to hold Mr. Barr in contempt after the Justice Department began on Monday to share some of the special counsel’s evidence with the committee. For the same reason, it is not yet clear whether the House Judiciary Committee will use its authority to file a lawsuit against him.
In the Oversight Committee’s subpoena fight, members have protested Mr. Barr’s instructions to a subordinate involved in the census to defy a subpoena requiring him to appear for a deposition based on a longstanding House rule that government lawyers are not permitted to accompany a witness in the deposition room.