Washington –– Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is being grilled by House Democrats over his controversial decision to add a question on U.S. citizenship to the 2020 census at a public hearing Thursday morning.
After months of back-and-forth with lawmakers, Ross is appearing before the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, at 10:00 a.m. ET.
In the second high-profile, open-doors hearing since Democrats took control of the committee, lawmakers are pressing 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.
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.
Follow along below for live updates from the hearing:
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 court rebukes for 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 Jess 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.