Nearly 60 House Democrats signed on to a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last week, asking him to explain contradicting statements over his decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census.
Ross has told Congress multiple times this year that the Commerce Department considered adding a citizenship question after the Department of Justice requested it, on the grounds that it would supposedly help DOJ better enforce the Voting Rights Act. But in a June 21 memo filed as part of a lawsuit challenging the decision, Ross revealed for the first time that he was considering adding the question and had discussed it with senior administration officials before the DOJ request. He also disclosed that he’d initially approached the department about adding the question.
In last week’s letter, 56 House Democrats refer to Ross’ statements as “glaring contradictions.” They want Ross to explain how that disclosure is consistent with his testimony that Commerce considered adding a citizenship question at DOJ’s request. They ask him to disclose which senior administration officials and other people he spoke to about adding a citizenship question.
Ross’ June disclosure is also likely to play a big part in multiple lawsuits challenging the addition of the citizenship question to the census. One argument raised by those challenging the decision is that the Commerce Department abused its discretion and made a decision that was “arbitrary” and “capricious.” Civil rights groups say adding a citizenship question would depress the response rate among immigrant communities ― which would have severe consequences, because census data is used to determine how many seats in Congress each state gets, as well as how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds are allocated. The groups say the DOJ request was just a pretext for a politically motivated decision.
On March 20, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) asked Ross during a hearing if anyone in the White House or the Republican Party had directed him to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Ross said the Commerce Department was responding “solely to the Department of Justice’s request.” On March 22, he told Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) during another hearing that it was DOJ that “initiated the request for inclusion of the citizenship question.” In May, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) pressed Ross on why DOJ made the request. Ross deflected the question, saying, “Well, the Justice Department is the one who made the request of us.”
DOJ formally requested a citizenship question in December 2017. But in the June 21 memo, Ross reveals that he started to consider adding the question shortly after he was appointed secretary of commerce (he was confirmed to the position in February 2017).
“Soon after my appointment as Secretary of Commerce, I began considering various fundamental issues regarding the upcoming 2020 Census, including funding and content. Part of these considerations included whether to reinstate a citizenship question, which other senior Administration officials had previously raised,” he wrote. “As part of that deliberative process, my staff and I consulted with Federal governmental components and inquired whether the Department of Justice (DOJ) would support, and if so would request, inclusion of a citizenship question as consistent with and useful for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.”
House Democrats, led by Reps. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.), Jimmy Gomez (Calif.) and Chu, want Ross to explain why he told Congress DOJ “initiated the request” when he was the one who approached DOJ about the matter.
“We remain deeply concerned that a citizenship question will lead to an inaccurate count and have detrimental consequences for our country,” the Democrats wrote. “With so much at stake, we must be able to obtain truthful information from the Commerce Department about how this decision was made.”
A Commerce spokesperson said the Democrats’ letter mischaracterizes what Ross had said about the addition of a citizenship question.
“The Department received the politically-charged letter from House Democrats containing several characterizations about his testimony and decision making process,” the spokesperson said Monday in a statement. “Those characterizations are false, and the Secretary will respond to them in due course.”
“However, it should be noted that discussing policy matters with other Administration officials is hardly news,” the statement continued. “And the Secretary’s discussions and consideration of the matter, prior to DOJ’s formal request that he reinstate the citizenship question on the 2020 Census, does not change that fact that DOJ submitted its formal request in December 2017. After DOJ initiated that request, the Secretary undertook a thorough assessment to determine whether and how it could be accommodated.”
This story has been updated to include the Commerce Department’s statement.