A top House Republican said he was willing to subpoena one of President Donald Trump’s Justice Department appointees to appear before Congress and answer questions about the department’s controversial request to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, made the comments Tuesday after John Gore, the acting attorney general for civil rights, failed to appear at a committee hearing on preparations for the 2020 census. Gowdy said he was “disappointed, to say the least,” that Gore failed to appear before the committee. He then indicated he was willing to issue a subpoena.
Gore’s testimony is significant because ProPublica reported he was behind the Department of Justice’s request to the Census Bureau to add a citizenship question. In a December letter to the Bureau, the Justice Department requested that the 2020 census add a citizenship question so that the department could better enforce the Voting Rights Act. The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, announced in March that it would accept the Justice Department’s request and add the question.
“He’s coming to talk, at some point or another, whether he wants to or not,” Gowdy said of Gore. “I’m happy to issue a subpoena.” He said the panel would convene on May 18 to hear from Gore “whether voluntarily or otherwise.”
Gowdy’s willingness to send a subpoena seemed to surprise Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who said she was “pleasantly surprised” that he was willing to do so.
Devin O’Malley, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment. Amanda Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the committee, said, “The Committee communicated to DOJ that we fully expected Gore to testify today.”
Critics say adding a citizenship question to the census is extremely risky and likely to depress the census response rate, particularly among minorities worried what the federal government will do with information about their citizenship status (Federal law says census data must remain confidential and prohibits the census bureau from transferring the information from the census to law enforcement or another government agency.)
The Trump administration is already facing a handful of lawsuits challenging the decision to add the question, which has not appeared on the decennial survey since 1950. The legal challenges argue that adding a citizenship question jeopardizes a mandate in the U.S. Constitution to count “all persons.” An inaccurate count would also have severe consequences for representation since electoral districts are based on census data, as well as the distribution of federal funds.
Many Democrats during the hearing expressed skepticism that the Justice Department was interested in better enforcing the Voting Rights Act and expressed skepticism that it would need more citizenship data even if it were interested in doing so. Former Justice Department officials have said the department already has good enough citizenship data to enforce the law, noting the census hasn’t asked about a citizenship question on the decennial survey since 15 years before the landmark voting law was passed in 1965. The census has asked about citizenship on other surveys that have gone out to a smaller portion of the population since then.
Gowdy also clarified during the hearing that while he could compel Gore to appear, he could not make him explain anything.
“My sending someone a subpoena, should not be confused with someone talking. I can’t make someone talk. I can make them sit at that table and listen to our questions,” he said.
UPDATE: May 14 ― Gonzalez said Gore had voluntarily agreed to appear before the committee and would testify on May 18.