Tomorrow, officials from the Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau will brief the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the Trump administration’s last-minute decision to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.
In advance of the briefing, committee Democrats have requested documentation of any concerns expressed internally by the Census Bureau regarding the citizenship question—as well as any analyses (including drafts) produced about its impact.
In effect, committee Democrats are trying to answer a question that has troubled civil rights advocates for months now: is the Trump administration deliberately sabotaging the 2020 Census?
As I reported last month, stakeholders have long warned that the 2020 Census is endangered by delayed funding, a leadership vacuum at its highest levels, and widespread fear and distrust of the federal government—not just among undocumented immigrants but among rural and native communities, African Americans, and others. The decision to include a citizenship question is the final straw: the clearest indication yet that the Trump administration is deliberately politicizing the Census process with the intent of redistributing economic and political power to whiter, more Republican districts.
Just so we’re clear, the conclusion that an untested citizenship question will jeopardize the count is not a partisan talking point; it’s an expert consensus. Six former Census directors from both Republican and Democratic administrations warned in a January 26 letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, “we believe that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census will considerably increase the risks to the 2020 enumeration.” In a 2015 amicus brief before the Supreme Court, four of those former directors stated, “the sum effect [of a citizenship question] would be bad census data. And any effort to correct for the data would be futile.”
The American Sociological Association, 161 mayors, and nineteen state attorneys general have also condemned the question. Eighteen states, seven cities, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors are suing the Census Bureau and Commerce Department in an effort to get the question removed. The question, they argue, unconstitutionally undermines the government’s responsibility to count every person living the United States every ten years.
Last Friday, the Census Bureau’s own Scientific Advisory Committee—composed of prominent demographers, economists, and engineers—said the administration’s decision was based on “flawed logic” and could threaten the accuracy of the count.
I spoke to Kenneth Prewitt, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, in February, before the Commerce Department’s announcement of the citizenship question. At the time, he was unwilling ascribe intent to the administration’s neglect and incompetence. “I’m not imputing motives. I do not do motives. I only do plausible outcomes,” Prewitt told me. But based on the White House’s behavior, he said, “They don’t seem like a group of people who are deeply anxious about having a successful Census.”
“I could be wrong,” Prewitt added. “And I would love to be proven wrong.”
Ron Jarmin, the acting director of the Census Bureau, has largely stayed out of the fray as his proudly apolitical agency is raked over the coals. He told the New York Times, “there’s a lot of uncertainty” and “there’s no way of really testing what it’s going to look like”—not exactly a ringing endorsement of the administration’s decision.
Jarmin will join the general counsel for the Department of Commerce in briefing the House Oversight Committee on April 11, where the committee’s Democrats will grill them about the impact of the citizenship question.
Jarmin, who took over the agency when former director John Thompson resigned in May 2017, is a career Census staffer, not a political appointee. None of the census stakeholders I’ve spoken to over the past few months have had anything negative to say about him. Terri Ann Lowenthal, a nationally recognized Census expert who was the staff director of the House Census oversight subcommittee from 1987 to 1994, described him as “highly qualified and well-respected.”
But Lowenthal added, “It’s important that the Census Bureau have permanent staff in the two top positions, people who can speak with authority, both to Congress and to the public.”
Ken Prewitt echoed these sentiments. “To be ‘acting,’ and to be a civil servant rather than a political appointee,” he said, “—it lessens your clout. And you need clout.”
Prewitt told me he had considered offering his own services—in a language the president might have understood. “I was tempted at one point in the last year to write the president and say, ‘I have experience running a Census, I’m willing to come back, and I will promise you the biggest Census ever. You will count more people than Obama did. You’ll count more people than Clinton did. You’ll count more people than Thomas Jefferson,’ and hope that he would actually buy into it.”
Prewitt decided against this tactic. Too bad: it might have worked.