Lawmakers, inspector general demand answers on Census Bureau political appointees

Jul 16, 2020
In The News

The Census Bureau is facing mounting criticism over the Trump administration’s addition of two political appointees last month to its senior staff even as it scrambles to complete the decennial census in the midst of a pandemic.

In letters this week to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Senate and House Democrats criticized the hiring of Nathaniel Cogley, an assistant political science professor at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Tex., as the bureau’s deputy director for policy, and Adam Korzeniewski, a former consultant to a pro-Trump YouTube personality and political candidate, as his senior adviser. Last week, the inspector general asked the bureau to provide more information about the two positions by July 20.

Neither position had existed previously. A statement from the bureau when the hiring was announced said the new officials would “help the Census Bureau achieve a complete and accurate 2020 Census and study future improvements.”

But the timing of the appointments, after the 2020 Census had undergone years of planning and the count was already underway, along with the men’s relative lack of census experience, raised concerns among census experts and some lawmakers that the White House was trying to influence the outcome of the count to benefit Republicans and red states.

“The Trump Administration has failed to adequately set forth its motives for this action, identify the specific needs it is trying to address, explain why it needs more political appointees running the Census than previous Administrations, or justify why the American taxpayers should be forced to pay for these partisan appointees running what should be an ideologically neutral count of the people in our country,” said a sharply worded letter Monday from Democratic Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (N.Y.), Jamie B. Raskin (Md.), Yvette D. Clarke (N.Y.), Jimmy Gomez (Calif.) and Gerald E. Connolly (Va.). The Census Bureau is overseen by the Commerce Department.

The letter referred to reports that the two men have repeatedly questioned why the bureau wants to focus on improving response rates in hard-to-count areas, which include low-income and minority communities.

A draft of a letter from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) asks Ross and Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham specifically how much access the appointees will have to sensitive census and IRS information and records and what meetings they will be included in, and it warned that the appointments could harm the survey.

“Even an appearance of political interference could impact the willingness to respond to the decennial census, depressing the count in hard-to-count communities across the country — such as immigrant, non-English speaking, Native American, and urban communities,” Schatz wrote.

In a letter on July 7, Inspector General Peggy Gustafson asked Dillingham for descriptions of the two new positions and how much they are paid and requested the men’s resumes and any documents or disclosures relevant to their employment by this Friday — an unusually quick turnaround for such a request. A bureau spokesperson said the bureau plans to respond to the letter.

Lawmakers have also challenged the appointments in other ways. A bill approved Tuesday by the House Appropriations Committee stipulated that “none of the funds made available in this or any other Act . . . may be used for the salaries or expenses of more than five political and presidential appointees in the Bureau of the Census.” The appointment of Cogley and Korzeniewski brings the total number of appointees at the bureau to six; the House is expected to vote on the bill this month.

A retired senior census official said he has heard from “over half a dozen former colleagues who are gravely concerned about the kinds of questions and the motives behind the questions that are being asked about detailed census operations — things that make people very nervous, like what is the imputation methodology, which is pretty arcane, and I’m not sure why political appointees would want to know.”

The questions included “Why do you advertise in all these languages?” and “Why do you still advertise when self-response is almost done?” said the retired official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic.

Self-response refers to the period before non-responding households start getting visits from census enumerators. These households typically include hardest-to-count populations such as minorities, immigrants, renters, lower-income households and children and tend to lean Democrat.

Some census employees say they plan to record Zoom calls with the new appointees and to ask them to put any requests in writing, he said.

Critics have long accused the Trump administration of trying to politicize the decennial census, which is used to determine congressional apportionment, state redistricting and $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding.

In 2018, the administration attempted to add a question about citizenship to the survey, sparking lawsuits that said it would harm the accuracy of the count; the question was blocked last year by the Supreme Court. The administration was also in contact with a now-deceased Republican strategist who had determined a citizenship question would result in a structural electoral advantage for Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.

The government has said it will seek information on citizenship from other sources; this week, NPR reported that South Dakota has joined Nebraska in agreeing to share driver’s license information with the administration, although such data is often obsolete and many states have refused to share it.

The scrutiny of the appointees comes as the bureau prepares to start sending workers door-to-door on Thursday in select parts of the country, asking households to respond to the census. Temporary employees in protective gear will fan out to homes in Idaho, West Virginia, Maine, and parts of Louisiana, Missouri and Oklahoma for a “soft launch” of the door-to-door knocking scheduled to kick off across the United States in August. A second part of the soft launch will begin on July 23 in Crystal City, Va., and parts of Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Washington State.

The goal is to count the roughly two-fifths of households that haven’t responded online, by mail or by phone. This phase had originally been slated to run from May through July, but it was delayed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic and will now run from Aug. 11 through the end of October.

The bureau postponed in-person visits as the pandemic spread in the spring and has asked Congress to approve a four-month delay in reporting deadlines for apportionment. It has urged people to fill out the form online, an option that had not been available in previous decennial counts. So far, 62.1 percent of households have self-responded.

When announcing the soft launches earlier this month, the bureau said it had selected the locations in part based on “the ability of Census Bureau staff to safely resume operations” in a given area.

But since then, caseloads have surged in many parts of the country, with recent spikes in some of the states designated for soft launches. A bureau spokesperson said the bureau would monitor the covid-19 situation and “adjust operations as needed.”

The bureau is providing workers with reusable masks and bottles of hand sanitizer and directing them to stay six feet away from respondents and not enter their homes.

On Tuesday, the bureau announced that it will also send more than 3,000 employees into communities with the lowest response rates to encourage and assist with filling out the form. They will go to places such as grocery stores, food banks, laundromats, restaurants, unemployment offices, back-to-school drives, places of worship and libraries. The bureau has also said it may send out text messages or emails in an effort to boost the response rate.