Lawmakers agree to issue subpoena for Justice Department no-show regarding Census question

Source: USA Today

By Deborah Barfield Berry

WASHINGTON — Republican and Democratic leaders on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee agreed Tuesday to subpoena a Justice Department official who didn’t show up for the panel’s hearing on the 2020 Census.

“He’s coming to talk at some point or another whether he wants to or not,’’ said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the committee. “I can’t make someone talk. I can make them sit at that table and listen to our questions.’’

John Gore, acting assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, didn’t show for the afternoon hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee focused on the 2020 Census.

Lawmakers, particularly Democrats, had planned to question Gore about the Justice Department’s request to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to include a controversial question about citizenship in the Census.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., pushed to schedule the hearing with Gore for next week.

“I’m pleasantly surprised that you’re willing to do so,” she told Gowdy of the subpoena request. “The only question is timing … We have to get these question answered.’’

Gowdy later recessed the hearing until May 18 so Gore can appear “whether voluntary or not.”

The Justice Department declined comment. 

Despite Gore’s absence, Gowdy pushed to continue with Tuesday’s session to hear from other witnesses, including officials from the Census Bureau, the Government Accountability Office and Justin Levitt, an expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

“I don’t think it’s fair for the people who did show up,” Gowdy said.

The Justice Department asked Census officials in December to “reinstate’’ the question, which was last asked in 1950 on the short-form Census questionnaire most people receive. Justice officials said the information would help in enforcing a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act designed to protect against discrimination in voting.

Ross, who announced his decision in March, said that having the citizenship information will “permit more effective enforcement” of the Voting Rights Act.

Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, disputed claims by the Justice Department and Census Bureau that it’s an effort to protect voters.

 “Give me a break,’’ he said

Some Republican lawmakers defended the decision, noting that citizenship is asked on the American Community Survey, a longer-form annual survey count.

“This isn’t something new or exotic,” said Rep.  Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

Earl Comstock, director of the Office of Policy and Strategic Planning for the Department of Commerce, said there is no definitive evidence the citizenship question would impact response rates. He called it a valid question.

“The fear that is being placed out there is being placed out there by public officials who I think are generating something that is not there,’’ he said. “The bottom line is this information is protected. It may not be used for immigration enforcement or any other purpose other than statistical purposes and that’s the message the Department of Commerce will be communicating to the public.”

“We’re working very hard to make ensure that all people are counted,’’ he said.

Cummings blasted the decision to add a question about citizenship.

“Persons. Persons. Not citizens. Not immigrants. Persons,’’ said Cummings of who should be counted. “That means everybody counts.’’.

Minutes before the start of the hearing, Democrats and civil rights group held a news conference to complain about the addition of the question and how it would lead to an undercount, particularly in communities of color.

Many said it was an effort to scare away respondents, particularly immigrants.

“I fear that the reason for this decision is law enforcement,‘’ said Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi of California. “It’s just not right.’’

Maloney has introduced legislation that would stop the Census Bureau from adding untested questions late in the planning process. She called the citizenship question an ‘‘unconstitutional attempt to politicize the census for partisan gain.’’

“If you’re not counted, you’re not represented,’’ she said.

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