Washington –– Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross faced sharp questioning from House Democrats over his controversial decision to add a question on U.S. citizenship to the 2020 census at a public hearing that ran for more than six hours.
After months of back-and-forth with lawmakers, Ross appeared Thursday before the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings. In the second high-profile, open-doors hearing since Democrats took control of the committee, lawmakers pressed the secretary on the 2020 census decision, which has been blocked by several court rulings and is expected to be reviewed by the Supreme Court before its term concludes in the summer.
“You lied to Congress. You misled the American people. And you are complicit in the Trump administration’s intent to suppress the growing political power of the non-white population,” Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay of Missouri told Ross, before calling on the secretary to resign.
Ross and his agency have repeatedly said the change to the questionnaire will help the Justice Department enforce the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, but critics believe the proposal will lead to low response rates among immigrants and distort congressional apportionment to favor Republicans.
The committee’s Democratic majority questioned Ross on the justification for the question, which has not been asked by the government in census questionnaires for nearly 70 years. They interrogated Ross on his communications regarding citizenship census data before he announced the change in March 2018, including with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, former attorney general Jeff Sessions and former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach — all notorious immigration hawks.
Throughout the hearing, however, Ross maintained the change was in direct response to the Justice Department’s request for statistics to safeguard voting rights.
Cummings revealed that during a closed-door hearing last week, John Gore, a Justice Department official, admitted he was provided a draft of the agency’s request to the Commerce Department for the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census by Mark Neuman, a member of President Trump’s transition team. According to a memo released by committee staff during the hearing, Gore said he had discussions about congressional apportionment with Sessions and two Commerce lawyers in the fall of 2017 — months before Ross unveiled the change at the center of the controversy.
Republican committee members tried to deflect the criticism faced by Ross, accusing Democrats of politicizing the census and holding a hearing that could interfere with ongoing litigation.Here are some of the most noteworthy moments from the hearing:
Maloney points out former Census chiefs oppose citizenship question
Veteran Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York pointed out that some former Census Bureau directors strongly oppose asking households a question on U.S. citizenship on the census questionnaire.
In a letter addressed to Ross and obtained by The Washington Post, six former Census Bureau chiefs who served under both Republican and Democratic presidents said they were “deeply concerned” about the implications of the change. “We believe that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census will considerably increase the risks to the 2020 enumeration,” they wrote in the letter dated Jan. 26, 2018.
In November, John Thompson, who led the Census Bureau from 2013 to 2017, testified before a federal judge in New York that a citizenship question could prompt many immigrants and non-citizens to not participate in the census count.