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Trump administration asks Congress to push back census by months because of coronavirus

The Trump adminstration is seeking to delay deadlines for the 2020 Census because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Trump adminstration is seeking to delay deadlines for the 2020 Census because of the coronavirus outbreak. (Paul Sancya/AP)

As the coronavirus pandemic forced the country into its second month of shutdown, the Trump administration on Monday told Congress it wants several more months to gather and deliver data for the 2020 Census.

The bureau had earlier delayed data collection deadlines by weeks and suspended field operation because of the pandemic.

Under the new plan, the Census Bureau would reactivate field offices in June and extend the window for data collection from mid-August to Oct. 31. It would also extend by four months the deadline for delivering apportionment counts to the president to April 30, 2021, and the deadline for delivering redistricting data to states to July 31, 2021.

The decennial count typically involves bureau employees delivering some forms in person and knocking on the doors of those who don’t respond to mailed requests. Employees also typically go into libraries, community centers, churches and other gathering places to help boost the response rate for the survey, activities that have now been halted.

Pushing back the reporting deadlines would require Congress to pass legislation the president must sign. But the request comes at a time of heightened tension between the administration and the House Oversight Committee.

The committee has clashed with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, over the government’s unsuccessful effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 survey. Democratic committee members have accused the government of seeking to politicize the count, which is used to determine $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding, along with apportionment and redistricting.

Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said a conference call initiated by the White House on Monday was “hastily arranged” and said the committee needed “more information that the administration has been unwilling to provide” regarding plans for the count.

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham was not on the call, and Maloney said that in recent weeks, the administration has refused committee requests to speak with him.

“If the Administration is trying to avoid the perception of politicizing the Census, preventing the Census Director from briefing the Committee and then excluding him from a call organized by the White House are not encouraging moves,” she said in a statement.

Michael Cook, a bureau spokesman, told The Washington Post, “Now that we’ve begun consulting with key Congressional leaders on our new plan for a complete and accurate count, Director Dillingham and Census Bureau leadership look forward to briefing members as soon as possible.”

The pandemic creates a quandary for the bureau. Although it is inviting people to respond online this year for the first time, a portion of households will still require in-person visits.

As of Monday, 48 percent of the country had responded to the survey, which seeks to enumerate the residents of each household as of April 1.

Some census experts worry moving deadlines by several months could degrade the quality of the data.

“It puts historically undercounted communities at a disadvantage with respect to collecting information that is reliable,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee. “Factors such as more movers and uncertainty about who was a usual household resident on April 1st diminish the accuracy of the count as more time passes. Congress should evaluate these issues carefully, in consultation with Census Bureau experts, as it considers the administration’s request.”

The Census Counts campaign, which represents advocacy groups on census issues, said in a statement that it supports the new timeline but indicated it may not be realistic.

“If it’s not safe to have census takers visiting people’s homes by June, then Congress has an obligation to consider other options to protect census workers and the communities they serve,” said Vanita Gupta, president and chief executive of The Leadership Conference Education Fund, which houses Census Counts.

Maloney said Ross, who was on the call, did not rule out further delays. At a White House briefing on Monday, President Trump said he thinks a 120-day extension “isn’t nearly enough.”

Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.