Embattled Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham resigns

Jan 18, 2021
In The News

The embattled director of the U.S. Census Bureau is resigning in the wake of allegations that he had supported a partisan push to deliver data on undocumented immigrants to President Trump before the president leaves office.

Steven Dillingham’s resignation will be effective Wednesday, according to a farewell message he sent to the bureau staff, posted on the agency’s website Monday.

Reports last week from bureau whistleblowers said political appointees were pressuring staff members to release state tallies of undocumented immigrants by Jan. 15, regardless of their accuracy, to boost Trump’s effort to exclude them from congressional apportionment. Those reports prompted calls from civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers for Dillingham to resign.

“That the census director would push expert, career staff to ignore quality standards to achieve an unlawful policy for an outgoing president is appalling,” said Wade Henderson, interim president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference, and one of those who called for Dillingham’s resignation.

In a statement posted on the bureau website, Dillingham said he had not heard any suggestions that his asking for data broke any laws or rules.

“The reported whistleblower concerns appear to be misunderstandings regarding the planned process for the review and potential postings of data, and the agreed upon need to apply data quality standards,” he wrote.

“The envisioned data tabulation was described to me as a single column of state numbers (or estimates) a page or two in length. I was informed that the data review and any potential publication of summary numbers or estimates would comply with quality standards used by the Bureau in producing ‘technical reports.’ ”

By law, congressional apportionment must be based on actual numbers, not estimates. The government never said how it planned to produce an actual tally of undocumented immigrants by state, which does not exist.

Dillingham was appointed director two years ago as the bureau was embroiled in lawsuits over the Trump administration’s push to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census, an effort that was ultimately blocked by the Supreme Court. His appointment had been set to last until the end of this year.

At the time of his confirmation, statistics experts and lawmakers from both political parties hailed him as a professional who they hoped could calmly navigate the agency through the roiling partisan battles surrounding the count.

But after the census was hit with delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic and Trump issued a memo declaring his intention to exclude undocumented immigrants from being counted for apportionment, Dillingham’s job became more fraught.

The administration pushed the bureau to stick to a schedule that would allow Trump to receive state population counts before leaving office but which bureau career staffers said would compromise accuracy. Several federal courts blocked his effort, but the Supreme Court last month said it was too soon to rule on it.

Census data is used to determine distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal funds annually, along with congressional apportionment and redistricting for the next decade. Excluding undocumented immigrants could give an advantage to Republicans in House seats and the electoral college.

The administration last year added an unprecedented number of political appointees to the bureau, causing concern that they would politicize the nonpartisan, once-a-decade count.

A letter last week to Dillingham from the Commerce Department’s inspector general, Peggy E. Gustafson, said bureau employees had told her they were under “significant pressure” from two of those appointees to produce a report by the end of the week related to the president’s memo, even though staffers said the data was not ready. One senior employee described what they were being asked to do as “statistically indefensible.”

The employees said Dillingham had categorized the report as the bureau’s “top priority,” the letter said, adding: The Office of the Inspector General “is also aware that you inquired into a financial reward for speed on this directive.”

Dillingham denied setting a deadline for the data and said that “upon learning of these concerns” on Tuesday, he told bureau officials that “those involved should ‘stand down’ and discontinue their data reviews.”

The revelations prompted calls for his resignation from an array of census experts, immigrant advocates and Democratic lawmakers.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said in a statement that Dillingham “appears to have acceded repeatedly to the Trump Administration’s brazen efforts to politicize the Census.” She urged President-elect Joe Biden to remove him if he did not resign.

On Friday, government lawyers signed an agreement that the bureau would not release state population data before Trump leaves office this week, ending his attempt to exclude undocumented immigrants.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House subcommittee on census oversight, called Dillingham’s resignation a necessary step forward.

“It is incredibly important for Census Bureau staff, Congress, stakeholders, and the public to have full confidence that the Census Director can always put science ahead of partisan considerations,” she said in a statement. “I think that confidence has been shattered, and the director’s resignation will help the agency rebuild trust as it prepares to release the all-important data from the 2020 Census.”