Democrats accuse Wilbur Ross of voter suppression in hearing on 2020 census citizenship question

Mar 14, 2019
In The News

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.

Wasserman Schultz presses Ross on email he sent 7 months before announcing Census change

In a heated exchange, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat, repeatedly pressed Ross on an email he sent Commerce Department official Earl Comstock in August 2017 -- about seven months before he unveiled the decision to add the citizenship question to the 2020 census.

In the typo-laden email, which has been released by court documents, Ross asked Comstock whether he had been on a call with unidentified officials who appeared to be opposed to asking the citizenship on the census. "That raises the question of where is the DOJ in their analysis?" the secretary wrote in the email dated Aug. 8, 2017, adding later he could call the "AG," referring to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

"I do not know the answer to your question as I sit here," Ross told the committee.

When Wasserman Schultz asked him if he had called Sessions after that email to discuss the citizenship question, the secretary said it was not "appropriate" for him to disclose private conversations he had with the former attorney general.

Ross says he didn't discuss citizenship question with the White House before joining admin

Responding to a question by Democratic Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, Ross said he believed he did not have any discussions with any White House official about the citizenship question on the Census before he joined the administration and was sworn in as commerce secretary in late February 2017.

"Not that I can recall," the secretary told lawmakers.

​Democratic Rep: Thomas Jefferson is not a "litmus test" for voting rights today

After a Republican congressman asked Ross if the Trump administration should be praised for "following" in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson, America's third president, for its efforts to count the population, Democratic Rep. Stacey Plaskett, the non-voting delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands, said the founding father should not regarded as a "litmus test" for how to organize the census count today.

She reminded Ross and her Republican colleagues that Jefferson supported the "Three-Fifths Compromise" enshrined in the original Constitution that counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional apportionment.

That clause was repealed by the 14th Amendment in 1868, which bestowed citizenship to every person born or naturalized in the U.S., and guaranteed all citizens "equal protection of the laws."

Democrat calls on Ross to resign for trying to suppress the vote of "the non-white population"

In a scathing rebuke, Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay of Missouri lambasted Ross for being "complicit" in a political campaign to weaken the voting rights of the nation's minority groups and accused the secretary of committing perjury.

"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," Clay told Ross, before calling on the secretary to resign.

Ross replied stoically, "Is there a question in that, sir?"

Committee doc: Sessions and Commerce lawyers discussed apportionment in the fall of 2017

John Gore, the Department of Justice official who drafted the agency's request to the Commerce Department to reinstate the citizenship question, told the committee in a closed-door interview last week that he had discussions about congressional apportionment with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and two Commerce lawyers in the fall of 2017, according to a memo released by committee staff during the hearing.

The discussions described by Gore, who was frequently instructed by Justice Department lawyers to not disclose certain information during his interview with the committee, reportedly took place months before Ross announced the citizenship question addition in March 2018.

The committee's memo also identified the Trump transition team member who Gore said provided him a draft of the request to include the citizenship question on the census. His name is Mark Neuman.

​Cummings presses Ross on communications with Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach

After noting that Ross asked his staff about information on citizenship data 10 days after he took office, Cummings pressed the secretary on a phone call he received from then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon in April 2017.

Ross said Bannon had called him to make the "simple request" of asking if he could get in touch with former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, who spearheaded a now-defunct White House commission to review claims of voter fraud. Democrats have accused the Kansas conservative firebrand of leading efforts designed to suppress minority votes.

Cummings said Kobach asked Ross in July 2017 to add a citizenship question to the census and raised the issue of undocumented immigrants being counted for congressional apportionment.

Asked if his communication with Kobach and the concern about the impact of unauthorized immigrants on the census count influenced his decision to include the question, Ross demurred and said he could not control what email messages were sent to him.

​Ross maintains he made decision because of DOJ request to enforce voting rights

After being sworn in by Cummings, Ross maintained he made the decision to include a question on U.S. citizenship on the 2020 census in direct response to a Department of Justice request designed to assist the law enforcement agency in its efforts to protect voting rights.

"DOJ sought census block-level citizenship data for use in Voting Rights Act enforcement. In response, the Census Bureau initiated a legal, policy, and programmatic review process to consider alternate means of meeting DOJ's request," Ross told the committee.

Cummings: "I do not know anyone" who believes Trump is interested in protecting voting rights

Cummings said he "did not know anyone" who believed the White House was concerned about protecting the voting rights of minorities.

"I do not know anyone who truly believes that the Trump administration is interested in enhancing the Voting Rights Act," he said. "This administration has done everything in its power to suppress the vote -- not to help people exercise their right to vote."

The Maryland Democrat noted that throughout his congressional tenure and involvement in the civil rights movement, he's never been aware of the federal government using statistics on U.S. citizenship to safeguard voting rights.

"In the more than 50 years since it was signed into law, Voting Rights Act enforcement has never used citizenship data from every U.S. household. Not once," he said.

Cummings added he was concerned Ross has made false statements to Congress in previous testimonies.

Cummings says DOJ official admitted that Trump transition aide provided draft request for citizenship question

In his prepared remarks, Cummings revealed 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 an unidentified member of Mr. Trump's transition team.

"Mr. Gore admitted that a former Transition Team official provided him an initial draft of a letter from the Department of Justice asking for the citizenship question to be added," Cummings wrote in his opening remarks.

"The key question we will ask Secretary Ross today is what was he hiding from Congress. What is the real reason the Trump Administration wanted to add this unconstitutional citizenship question?" he added earlier in the press release.

Cummings alleged that despite Ross repeatedly saying he made the decision in response to a Justice Department request, the commerce secretary had been "choreographing" the efforts to add a citizenship question to the census since he was sworn in. In the prepared remarks, the Maryland Democrat accused Ross of working step-by-step with former White House official Steve Bannon and former attorney general Jeff Sessions -- both notorious immigration hardliners -- to devise the justification for the change to the Census.

Meadows says the census has asked about citizenship before to defend move

Defending Ross' decision, North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican, said a question on U.S. citizenship has been part of previous census questionnaires throughout American history.

The last time the U.S. government asked households a question about U.S. citizenship was in 1950, under President Harry Truman, a Democrat.

The North Carolina Republican added he was "troubled" about the possibility of the hearing interfering with ongoing court cases on Ross' controversial decision.

After Meadows' remarks, Cummings announced a short recess to allow lawmakers to partake in a floor vote.

Jordan accuses Democrats of "politicizing" the census

In his opening remarks, the committee's ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, accused Democrats of "politicizing" the census.

The conservative firebrand, one of Mr. Trump's most loyal allies in Congress, said he was bewildered about why Democrats were worried about finding out "how many citizens are in the United States of America."

Jordan also echoed the arguments often cited by Ross and the Commerce Department to defend the addition of a U.S. citizenship question to the 2020 census, saying it would help the Justice Department protect voting rights.

Two courts rebuke the administration

After the Commerce Department announced the consequential change, several states and cities which oppose the inclusion of a citizenship question in the census filed lawsuits against the government. Two federal judges have already ruled against Ross' decision and barred him from implementing it.

In his ruling in January, Judge Jesse Furman of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York found that Ross' decision to include a citizenship question in the census could lead to "a significant reduction in self-response rates among noncitizen and Hispanic households" and to "hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of people" being uncounted by the census.

Furman added that the manner in which the change was rolled out violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), a federal statute.

In another ruling earlier this month, Judge Richard Seeborg of the U.S. District Court Northern District of California also said the change to the census violated federal administrative law and threatened the "very foundation of our democratic system."

The case is expected to be reviewed by the conservative-leaning Supreme Court before its current term ends in July.

"Our voice in Congress lies in the balance"

"Our voice in Congress lies in the balance," California's Secretary of State Alex Padilla told CBS News.

Padilla, one of the state leaders spearheading the legal challenge to decision, said the proposal to add a citizenship question to the census would particularly affect diverse and populous states with many congressional seats like California. He said it's already difficult to encourage everybody, especially immigrants, to participate in the census, and that a citizenship question would make the task even more arduous.

"This is a thinly veiled attempt by the Trump administration to intimidate diverse communities from participating," he added.

Padilla dismissed Ross' premise that the change is designed to better equip the federal government to enforce voting rights. "It's absolutely laughable to think that the Trump administration is interested in protecting voting rights for communities of color," he said. "Every other action by their administration relative to voting rights has been hostile."

A controversial decision

When Ross announced that he was reinstating the citizenship question on the 2020 census questionnaire in March 2018, he said it was in response to a request from the Justice Department for better citizenship data to assist in its enforcement of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But critics believe the Commerce Department's proposal would lead to low response rates among immigrants and distort congressional apportionment in favor of Republicans. They say both citizen and non-citizen immigrants would hesitate to answer the citizenship question, fearing reprisals from the Trump administration and its hardline immigration agenda.

If these immigrants do not participate in the census, critics argue, they will not be counted for congressional apportionment -- the process through which seats in the House of Representatives are distributed among states.