Census

Lawmakers hear from Census officials on citizenship question

Census 2020 By Maria Dryfhout Stock photo ID: 790714156 

Questions surrounding the Commerce Department's decision to add a question on citizenship to the 2020 Census continue to linger following a closed congressional briefing.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to which Census delivered its final questions to appear on the 2020 forms, held a closed briefing April 11 with three officials — acting Director Ron Jarmin, Assistant Division Chief of the American Community Survey Office Jennifer Ortman and Commerce Department Deputy General Counsel Michael Walsh — to discuss the citizenship question's inclusion.

"We really do need to have a better sense of why the question was asked for by the Justice Department" and of the potential impact on response rates, Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) said after the briefing.

Given the relatively limited window between now and 2020 — the 2018 dress rehearsal has already begun and did not include the citizenship question — Census officials told members they were not planning to add new tests or operational changes before 2020, beyond asking about it in focus groups, said Gomez.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) lamented that Commerce "has shown no transparency in this decision … [and] didn't offer any clarity other than that they took the DOJ request at face value."

Justice asked Census to include a citizenship question on the decennial forms for the first time since 1950 to help the department fully enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"This all just reinforces the point that this was a purely political decision, devoid of rigorous review or analysis, that will seriously damage the quality of the 2020 Census," Maloney said.

Six former Census directors who served under Republican and Democratic presidents opposed the addition of the question. Additionally, a number of states have filed lawsuits in the wake of the decision, and Republican and Democratic mayors have opposed the addition of the question. However, Republicans in Congress have yet to voice similar opposition.

Gomez said the only Republican member who asked a question of the officials during the briefing was Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of Oversight's Subcommittee on Government Operations.

Gomez also stated that when he asked if any professional staff raised objections to the addition of the citizenship question, the Commerce officials said no.

"How is that even possible?" Gomez asked reporters.

Census advisers blasted the inclusion of the citizenship question at a March 29 meeting at the bureau's headquarters.

Following the briefing, Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) announced the committee would hold a hearing on the matter May 8.

April 10, committee members on both sides of the aisle — Gowdy, Meadows, top Democrat Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) — requested the Government Accountability Office, which placed the Census on the high-risk list in 2017, to review Census readiness in six areas.

They asked GAO to review the non-response follow-up during the 2018 end-to-end test, hiring and recruiting practices and technologies, the bureau's most recent operational plan, the bureau's peak operations readiness, as well as the projected response rate with the actual rate complete with a cost assumption.

They also asked GAO to conduct a post-2020 assessment that includes lessons learned and future recommendations. The letter did not mention the addition of the citizenship question.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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