House Democrats grilled Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross Thursday about his decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, with several asking if he had lied under oath and one demanding his resignation.
Members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform pressed Ross to explain why his previous sworn testimony conflicted with government records. They pointed to congressional hearings last spring at which he testified that his move to add the question came solely in response to a December 2017 request from the Justice Department. Litigation around the question later produced emails showing that Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, had been pushing for the question for months before that.
“You can’t lie to Congress,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said to Ross. “Michael Cohen lied to Congress and now he’s going to prison.”
At the end of the 6 1/2- hour hearing, committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said Ross had until Tuesday to produce documents related to the questioning or possibly face a subpoena.
Inquiries from committee members fell along party lines, with Republicans defending the addition of the question but largely avoiding probing the secretary’s conflicting accounts.
Instead, some Republicans said the hearing was inappropriate given ongoing legal wrangling over whether the question should appear on the decennial form. Democrats said legal precedent allows for congressional hearings on issues even as they are being litigated.
Seven lawsuits have challenged Ross’s March 26 decision to add the question to the 2020 survey. Plaintiffs, which include multiple states, cities, and civic organizations, say it violates the Administrative Procedure Act and the constitutional mandate to enumerate every person living in the United States.
Opponents say that the question is a political maneuver by the Trump administration. They say its inclusion, particularly at a time when noncitizens feel targeted by the government, will deter many immigrants and their family members from participating, reducing the count’s accuracy and harming people who live in areas with large immigrant populations. Census data is used to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding and to determine apportionment and redistricting.
Two federal judges have already ruled against the question. The Supreme Court is set to hold a hearing on it April 23, and is expected to rule on it by June, shortly before the survey forms are due to go to the printer.
At Thursday’s hearing, Democrats focused on emails showing that Ross discussed adding the citizenship question with Trump administration officials early in 2017. In the emails, he expressed frustration that it was not happening quickly enough, and said he would discuss it with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
When pressed about his emails, memos and related discussions, Ross frequently said that he didn’t remember or the discussions were confidential. He replied to many questions by saying he had to confer with his staff, or by referring to a March 26, 2018, memo he wrote announcing his decision to add the question.
Questioning got testy at several points.
“Mr. Secretary, 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 nonwhite population,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). “You have already done great harm to Census 2020 and you have zero credibility, and you should, in my opinion, resign.”
Republican lawmakers derided the hearing as a waste of time or a partisan “inquisition,” and argued that the proposed question was not new and had appeared on the census for most of the past 120 years.
The citizenship question appears on the Census Bureau’s more extensive American Community Survey, a successor to the long-form census, which is sent annually to fewer than 3 percent of households. The decennial survey, which includes about 10 questions, has not asked about citizenship since 1950.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) held up copies of the 1950 wording on birthplace and naturalization and the planned question on citizenship, saying, it is “a materially different question” and asking Ross if he had followed the rules of the Census Act. The act requires the Secretary of Commerce to submit to Congress, no later than three years before Census Day, the topics to be included; the questions are to be submitted no later than two years before Census Day.
Census Day for this cycle is April 1, 2020.
The secretary may submit additional topics or questions if he or she “finds new circumstances exist” that require those additions, but the secretary must provide a report explaining those circumstances.
Saying Ross had not submitted the required third report to Congress, Ocasio-Cortez asked, “Why are we violating the law to include this question?”
“I have no need to respond,” Ross said.
When Cummings insisted, Ross said his attorneys had advised him that all required reports had been submitted. Cummings then asked Ross to provide a written statement that he had complied with the law.
The Commerce Department declined to comment on whether Ross had submitted all three reports.
Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee, said that by sticking to his previous rationale for adding the citizenship question, Ross “continues to undermine public confidence in the objectivity of the census process. I do not think his testimony did anything to restore faith in the administration’s end goal for including the question above the objections of Census Bureau experts. Republicans are accusing Democrats of sabotaging an accurate census by focusing on this issue. But this level of partisanship itself is making the Census Bureau’s job far more difficult already.”
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference Education Fund, said in a statement that at Thursday’s hearing, Ross continued “his trend of providing deceptive explanations for his harmful decision. American communities will suffer the consequences of this deception, which has increased the climate of fear throughout our country and will undermine the accuracy of the count.”
The hearing ended with Cummings warning that if Ross didn’t produce documents related to questions raised at the hearing, “You will be forcing us to consider a subpoena.”
He noted that Ross had sought to postpone the hearing, but agreed to appear after the committee agreed not to question him about his financial disclosures or the selling of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.
In return, Cummings said, “We expected you to answer all our questions” related to the citizenship question.
In refusing to answer many of them, he said, “I felt like you were trying to pull a fast one.”