Last week, Democrats officially became the majority party in the House of Representatives, gaining control of the congressional committees that are empowered to investigate the presidency of Donald Trump. There is no shortage of targets for Democrats, but one who will be immediately scrutinized by the newly named House Committee on Oversight and Reform is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and his misleading testimony about his decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
In March of last year, the Census Bureau reported that by 2045, white people in America would be the minority, comprising 49.7 percent of the population. A few weeks later, the Commerce Department announced that for the first time in 70 years, the constitutionally mandated census would include a question about citizenship status. With Trump leading the Republican Party’s crusade against minorities, immigrants and the working poor, the decision to tamper with the census sure looks like a clear effort to lower the response rate and undermine the accuracy of the count.
Why is this important? Because the census is how representation in our government is determined. The demographics in this country are changing, and this terrifies the virtually all-white club that is today’s Republican Party. Its only chance at staying in power is to rig the way power is distributed. What happens with the census could be one of the most important and immediate fallouts of the Trump presidency.
On March 20, 2018, before the House Committee on Appropriations, Ross testified that “we have had a request, as everyone is aware, from the Department of Justice, to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.” He specifically stated that “we are responding solely to the Department of Justice’s request.”
Two days later, Ross told the House Ways and Means Committee, “The Department of Justice, as you know, initiated the request for inclusion of the citizenship question.”
The same claim about the Justice Department’s request was repeated by a Commerce Department official before the Oversight Committee on May 8, and by Ross again before the Senate Committee on Appropriations two days later.
However, internal documents made public revealed that Ross was taking steps to add the citizenship question long before the Justice Department’s December 2017 request. On March 10, 2017, Ross received an email from a Commerce Department official regarding “your question on the Census,” which included a Wall Street Journal article with the headline, “The Pitfalls of Counting Illegal Immigrants.”
Ross lied to Congress multiple times when he testified that the citizenship addition to the 2020 census originated with a request from the Justice Department.
On April 5, 2017, Ross’ executive assistant sent an email to Ross’ wife asking about his plans for that evening because “Steve Bannon has asked that the Secretary talk to someone about the Census.” Bannon, at the time, was one of the highest-ranking advisers in Trump’s White House.
The American people have a fundamental right to know why this change was made and why Ross hasn’t been truthful about the decision-making process behind it.
In 2009, when Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel wanted to change the census chain of command so that the bureau would report directly to the White House, Oversight Republicans, led by my former boss Darrell Issa, blasted the action as a “shamefully transparent attempt by your Administration to politicize the Census Bureau and manipulate the 2010 Census.” The appearance of White House interference in the census prompted House Republicans to introduce a resolution calling on the secretary of commerce to “use all legal and reasonable means to count every living person” in the 2010 census. The resolution, by the way, made no mention of citizenship or legal status.
To date, the same Oversight Republicans who were so willing to attack Obama have been silent about Trump, silent about Bannon’s intervention, and silent about Ross’ false testimony before Congress. Committee Democrats have diligently pursued the issue and made multiple requests for hearings and subpoenas. Oversight Republicans ignored them and did nothing. That’s all about to change.
On May 2, 2017, Ross complained in an email to his staff, “I am mystified why nothing have [sic] been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question.” His staff responded, “We need to work with Justice to get them to request that citizenship be added back as a census question, and we have the court cases to illustrate that DOJ has legitimate need for the question to be included. I will arrange a meeting with DOJ staff this week.”
This exchange illustrates very pointedly that Ross lied to Congress multiple times when he testified that the citizenship addition to the 2020 census originated with a request from the Justice Department. Very clearly, the request from the DOJ was orchestrated by Ross and his staff.
On July 21, 2017, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach sent an email to Ross’ chief of staff revealing he had spoken to Ross “at the direction of Steve Bannon” and that the citizenship issue was “pretty straightforward,” as Bannon had provided “the text of the question to be added.”
Bottom line: The change to the Census was the brainchild of Bannon, and Ross lied to Congress about it. Now, he’s going to be held accountable for it.
Kurt Bardella is a HuffPost columnist and served as the spokesperson and senior adviser for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2009-2013. Follow him on Twitter: @kurtbardella