Saving The Census Approaches A Do-Or-Die Moment in Congress

US President Donald Trump gestures after arriving on Capitol Hill as US Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) look on in Washington, DC on March 10, 2020. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm ... US President Donald Trump gestures after arriving on Capitol Hill as US Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) look on in Washington, DC on March 10, 2020. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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September 15, 2020 6:01 p.m.

Finishing the 2020 census has turned into a giant mess and time is running out for Congress to clean it up.

Whether the Census Bureau should be forced to expedite the final stages of its counting operation is currently the focus of a hugely consequential fight. With the dueling battles ongoing in federal courthouses and in the halls of the Congress, at stake is the accuracy of the census data, which determines the allocation of political power and government funding in the United States.

The Trump administration’s shady and shifting approach to the constitutionally mandated decennial count is part of a pattern of the President trying to hijack the census in ways that will harm communities of color, and particularly immigrants.

But the alleged scheme only works with the complicity of the GOP-led Senate.

Approval by Congress to give the Census Bureau more time to finish the count — as the administration itself once requested — would help the bureau overcome the unprecedented challenges it faces during the COVID-19 outbreak. So far, however, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) has not backed such a move, despite it having bipartisan support and with even his rank-and-file showing a general openness to the idea.

“McConnell hasn’t done it yet,” said Sen. John Tester (D-MT), who worried that his state was about to be “severely undercounted.”

“I never want to bet money on what Mitch is about to do,” Tester told TPM.

McConnell’s office did not respond to TPM’s inquiry about the issue.

Democrats are planning on making the issue a priority in the upcoming negotiations for a must-pass government spending bill, but whether they’ll have much leverage will depend on how many Republicans they can bring to their side.

“Although there are Republicans who have been supportive of the census, they need to get a little louder,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who introduced standalone legislation Tuesday giving the count more time, told TPM. “Unless they make it a priority in one of these must-pass bills, the partisans who are unconstitutionally manipulating the process are determined to have their way.”

Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, who both represent Alaska, a state particularly at risk with a rushed count, are co-sponsoring the Schatz bill. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), who faces a competitive re-election this year, has also formally asked for the extensions.

I wish I could say that we had clear support on an extension for the census, but at this point in time, it doesn’t look like it,” Murkwoski told TPM.

The events that led to this moment are extremely complicated. But there’s widespread agreement among former Census Bureau directors, demographers, redistricting gurus and other outside census experts that if the Census Bureau is forced to the rush the survey, the reliability of the entire count will be in jeopardy.

An internal Census Bureau presentation of the current, expedited plan even warned that that it created “risk for serious errors not being discovered in the data—thereby significantly decreasing data quality.”

The Justice Department — in the lawsuits that have been filed to challenge the rushing of the count — has pointed to two statutory deadlines as the reason the Census Bureau has recently had to expedite the survey’s process. They are the Dec. 31, 2020 deadline for producing apportionment data, which determines how many House seats each state gets, and the March 31, 2020 deadline for producing the redistricting data that guides how states draw those and other legislative maps.

Back in April, as the COVID-19 outbreak was taking hold, the administration asked Congress to push back each of those deadlines by four months, given the delays the pandemic was causing to operations, and the House granted those extensions in the coronavirus legislation it passed in May. But in the coronavirus proposals the Senate has since offered, the extensions were notably absent. Meanwhile, the Trump’s own Census Bureau Director Steve Dillingham could not say in July congressional testimony whether the administration still supported the delay requests

Many believe that the White House has reversed course on wanting the postponements in order to guarantee that Trump is still in office to implement an apportionment policy he announced in July. The policy would exclude undocumented immigrants from that count. It has since been blocked by a federal court, but the Supreme Court will have the final word on it.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the census, denied that the lack of action on the extension was motivated by a desire to guarantee that Trump was in office for apportionment. He was ardent, however, in his belief that the Census Bureau wasn’t going to get the relief it had once sought.

You have deadlines, that make an awful lot of sense, to have this thing done by the end of the year and this administration is going to do everything it can to complete it and it looks like they’re well on track to do so,” he said. “There doesn’t look like there’s any reason for a delay other than one more false narrative, on the part of Democrats, that there’s some horrible plot.”

Johnson was an outlier, among the dozen or so Senate Republicans TPM spoke to Tuesday about their willingness to give the bureau more time to finish the count. At least a few GOP senators sound like they were warming up to giving the extensions. Several others said they needed more time to study the issue, but were open to the idea if the bureau really needed more time.

I don’t know what the counterargument to that is, maybe it’s a good one. But my sense is that we want accuracy, even if it takes a few more months to get it,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told TPM, while expressing support for an extensions.

I think the pandemic and the wildfires have complicated the ability of the census takers to finish the job and an extension may be warranted,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who faces a competitive 2020 race.

While many Republican senators admitted they hadn’t been aware there was controversy over the current timeline, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) said he was in the process of getting more information about what the bureau needed.

“There seems to be some conflicting information,” he said.

Indeed, the bureau’s Aug. 3 announcement that it was speeding up its counting operations promised a commitment to “a complete and accurate 2020 Census.”

But behind the scenes, there seems to be a lot less confidence. In court filings and other documents, the bureau has hedged or softened the language on what internal benchmarks it believes it will be able to meet.

In a court declaration submitted over the weekend, for instance, a top Census Bureau official warned that it was “facing significant risks” to completing its counting goals in “all states,” due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the wildfires and other factors outside of its control.

This is a problem for Congress to solve,” a DOJ attorney told a federal judge, who pressed him on the admission Monday.

When asked by TPM, Sen. Johnson didn’t see much of a problem.

It’s never going to be 100 percent complete. They’re always filling in gaps. They never canvas every human being,” Johnson said. “But it looks like, compared to past censuses, from what I have been reading, they’re in pretty good shape.”

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