What will a Democratic House mean for the census?

population (Kao_Graphic/Shutterstock.com) 

Now that Democrats are set to control the House of Representatives -- and its oversight and budget committees – Congress' approach toward the 2020 census will likely see some significant changes.

The most pressing oversight issue, which could have major implications for the accuracy of the count, is last year’s addition of the citizenship question, according to Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).

The question’s inclusion -- and the ongoing lawsuits over it -- presents a unique circumstance that the Republican-controlled Congress has elected not to challenge or meaningfully explore.

Come January, however, Connolly -- a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and ranking member of its Government Operations subcommittee -- will be on the majority side, and he made clear the census will be “one of our top priorities because it is so timely.”

“Red and blue states lose out if you don’t get an accurate census,” he said. “It’s arguably the single most important thing required by the Constitution … it needs to be as accurate as possible.”

Connolly said this kind of oversight means bringing Census officials before Congress -- including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

“We need to do this in open session with lots of sunshine and hear independent experts as well as from the Census Bureau about their concerns about this question,” he said. “And we need to subpoena Wilbur Ross himself to testify under oath why he misled Congress on who was, in fact, behind the addition of this question.”

Civil rights groups, former census directors, count advisors, mayors and local representatives, along with a national opinion survey commissioned by the bureau itself, have warned that including the citizenship question would likely depress response rates of historically hard-to-count populations.

Connolly said the House will pursue a range of options, including “expeditious legislation” to reverse the inclusion of the question. Any legislative solution would need to pass a Republican Senate and receive President Donald Trump’s signature.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York kicked off the first trial over the question on Nov. 5. So far, the trial has included testimony from census advisers and former Director John Thompson.

Democratic control of the House also has implications on the funding side as the census enters its final stretch of appropriations. The bureau is operating under the continuing resolution until Dec. 7.

Phil Sparks, co-director of the watchdog group the Census Project, said that Democrats taking the House augurs “a more favorable climate” for the census, pointing out past Republican Houses have “lowballed the census budget number for many years.”

Terri Ann Lowenthal, who has provided census oversight as a congressional aide, presidential transition team member and private consultant on decennials dating back to the 1990 count, said the divided Congress “holds the promise of greater bipartisan support for adequate 2020 Census resources in these final months of census preparations and implementation.”

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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