Cummings, Sarbanes Grill Commerce Secretary on Proposed Census Question

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appears before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Thursday. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and other Democrats grilled President Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday on his controversial decision to include a citizenship question in the next national census.

The Maryland Democrat, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, presided over the marathon hearing where Democrats finally had a chance to question Ross, who they have repeatedly asked to come before the committee, to speak on the census.

Just before the epic hearing adjourned in the late afternoon, Cummings threatened Ross with a subpoena if he doesn’t provide the committee with more information by next week.

The packed hearing stretched out over six hours, with Ross asking the committee on several occasions to let him take a 10-minute break before the next round of questioning.

Democrats questioned whether Ross should include a citizenship question and if he had lied to Congress in the past when he explained why he pressed for the citizenship question on the census form.

“We have serious questions about whether Secretary Ross was truthful,” Cummings told the committee.

Ross has maintained he added the question at the request of the Department of Justice, but Cummings said it appeared Ross had been “choreographing efforts behind the scenes.” The issue has been at the center of a massive legal dispute for nearly a year.

“You claim you added it only because the Justice Department wanted you to, but we obtained documents showing that you were working to add the citizenship question from your very first days,” Cummings said to Ross. “Our interest is in getting to the truth, and once we get there, we are going to defend it.”

Cummings released a memo Thursday detailing the committee’s investigation, including allegations of requests for a citizenship question dating back to Trump’s transition team and correspondence between the Commerce and Justice Departments on the issue.

Other Democrats on the committee joined Cummings in peppering Ross with questions.

“I think this was concocted by your department and foisted on DOJ and others,” said Rep. John P. Sarbanes (D-Md.). “The documents indicate this originated at the very least inside the Department of Commerce, if not other parts of the administration.”

Ross maintained he did nothing out of line and was simply restoring a question that has been asked in past censuses and other national surveys. He said correspondence with other departments was “simply seeking information.” He repeatedly deflected questions by referring to a March 2018 memo that described the decision to include the question.

“The Department of Commerce is fully committed to issuing as complete and accurate a decennial census as we can,” Ross told the committee. His department requested an additional $3.2 billion for the census.

At issue in today’s debate is a new, controversial question the Commerce Department plans to add to the 2020 census. That question asks, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”

Ross announced his decision a year ago to add the question to the census — the first time since 1950 that the census would pose such a question to all households.

More than a dozen states and cities — including Maryland — have sued the Trump administration to try to block the question, which they argue is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on the case next month, and the justices will likely announce their decision in June.

Opponents of the question say it could scare away immigrants from responding to the census and skew the population totals.

The census, conducted once every 10 years, has massive implications for states. The count serves as the basis for decisions on how much money the government sends out for education and infrastructure. It also forms the basis for how many congressional seats each state can send to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Republicans objected to even holding the hearing in light of the ongoing litigation.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.)  and other Republicans argued the hearing was problematic because lawmakers could ask questions that could influence the courts. Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) floated a motion to adjourn the hearing before the questioning began. It failed on a party-line vote due to Democratic opposition.

“All of a sudden, the census has taken on a new height of political spectrum,” Meadows told the committee. “I fail to realize why would we not want to know is someone is a citizen of this great country or not?”

Allison Winter is a Washington, D.C., correspondent for The Newsroom.

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