Why House Oversight Dems Will Make The 2020 Census A Priority

December 27, 2018 6:00 a.m.

There is no shortage of Trump administration controversies for Democrats to investigate next year when they take over the House Oversight Committee. But near the top of their list is an issue that has flown under the radar in the first two years of the Trump presidency but has major consequences that will be felt for at least a decade.

Oversight Democrats are signaling that a priority of their committee will be investigating the Trump administration’s move to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.

The decision, made by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, has rarely cracked front pages when competing with the dozens of administration-related scandals. However, the question has prompted broad concern among civil rights advocates, policy wonks and even officials at the Census Bureau, who believe it will lead to an undercount of immigrant communities discouraged from participating in the survey. That, in turn, will shift political representation and federal funding away from those populations, while also skewing data upon which local and state governments  — as well as private business — depend to plan their operations.

Adding to the anxiety — and prompting suspicion among Democrats — is that the administration appears to have misled Congress and the public about its reason for adding the question, which is now the subject of numerous lawsuits. Internal records released with the litigation have contradicted Ross’ congressional testimony about the question. Incoming Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings has already previewed plans to invite Ross back to testify, and committee Dems are also interested in speaking to other officials who can weigh in on the move.

Democrats are also facing a June deadline for when the Census forms will go to the printer and it will no longer be possible to reverse the decision to have the question added.

“If we had five years to figure this out and try to fix it, it might not be a priority right now,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), an Oversight Committee member, told TPM. “But we don’t. We know June is looming. We’ve got to do it now.”

‘Weaponizing the Census’

Democrats were alarmed by the administration’s push to add a citizenship question when the effort was first reported a year ago. While Democrats were successful in getting a hearing scheduled on the 2020 Census, committee Republicans rebuffed their requests for subpoenas to probe the citizenship question decision. Democrats have also sought a Commerce Department Inspector General investigation into the move.

“Weaponizing the Census in an attempt to frighten or exclude immigrant and minority communities undermines our democracy and attacks the very foundation of our country,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the incoming chair of the Oversight Committee, said in a statement to TPM last week.

The administration first claimed that the question was being added at the request of the Justice Department for to help with its Voting Rights Act enforcement. But internal emails released with the various lawsuits revealed that Ross himself pressed for the question from the early days of the Trump presidency and personally called then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to get the Justice Department to request it. Those and other records undermined Ross’ previous testimony to Congress, and House Democrats want him to clear that up.

“If he doesn’t want to come, then I think we should subpoena him and compel him to testimony. After all, the buck stops with him,” Connolly, who is currently the ranking member of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Census, said.

Committee Democratic staffers say that beyond the need for Ross to clarify his testimony, they want to question him about how the decision was made and, more broadly, how the survey is being implemented.

What The Census Bureau Thinks About The Question

Besides Ross, the committee also wants to speak to the Census Bureau’s top scientist, John Abowd, a Democratic staffer told TPM, and to “anyone else who had a statistician’s approach to how this could affect the Census.”

Abowd was the star witness in a recent federal trial in New York over the question, where he testified that he thought adding the question was a bad idea, wasn’t the best way to meet the Justice Department’s request for data, and that it would be costly to try to mitigate the lower response rate of those spooked by the question.

‘We Can’t Just Chase The Shiny Objects’

The June deadline is not the only reason Dems plan to make the Census oversight a priority. An inaccurate Census has serious consequences for voting rights, as the data is used to determine how U.S. House seats are allotted among states, as well as how congressional and state legislative districts are drawn.

The effect the question could have on undermining the political power of Latinos and other immigrant communities have made Democrats wary of the motives behind adding the question, which former White House adviser Steve Bannon and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach both lobbied Ross for.

An undercount also skews federal resource allocation, and undermines the operational planning that the private sector and state and local governments do on the basis of the data.

But Democrats recognize that it won’t be easy to get the public to be attention to their investigation as it competes with other flashier Trump scandals.

Trying to break through in the media is going to be a challenge,” Connolly said, “But it’s so critically important, and we can’t just chase the shiny objects. We have a job to do here.”

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