U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham testified Wednesday that he wasn’t informed ahead of time about President Donald Trump's order seeking to exclude people in the U.S. illegally from the process of redrawing congressional districts.
Dillingham testified during an emergency congressional hearing that he was unaware of anyone from the Census Bureau playing a role in the order that civil rights groups have called unconstitutional. The bureau is collecting the head count data that will be used to redraw the districts.
The Democratic-controlled House Committee on Oversight and Reform held the hearing after Trump issued a memorandum last week seeking to exclude people in the country illegally from being included during the district redrawing process. Civil rights group have filed multiple lawsuits challenging the memorandum as unconstitutional and an attempt to limit the power of Latinos and immigrants of color.
Democratic lawmakers expressed both dismay and sympathy with Dillingham, a Trump appointee, for being kept out of the loop on such a vital decision involving the bureau.
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Opponents of Trump's order say it could discourage immigrants and noncitizens from participating in the once-a-decade head count used for deciding how many congressional seats each states gets in a process known as apportionment. A Pew Research Center analysis shows that the order, if it stands up to challenges, could cost California, Florida and Texas congressional seats.
“That is unbelievable to me that you are the director of the Census and that you didn't hear anything about this before," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schutz, a Democrat from Florida.
Democratic lawmakers also expressed frustration over their inability to pin Dillingham down on whether the Census Bureau was moving ahead with a request to extend the deadline for turning over the apportionment data past Dec. 31. Sticking to the end-of-the-year deadline would keep the data processing for apportionment under Trump's watch should he lose the November election, even though Census Bureau officials have said they need extra time to make up for pandemic-related delays.
"We have, for planning purposes, made assessments and continue to do so," Dillingham said after repeatedly being asked about the deadline extension.
That answer drew a warning from U.S. Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat from California, that Dillingham’s name "would go down in history, if this is the worst census conducted by the United States government."
"You will be responsible," Gomez said.
The committee's chairwoman, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, said Trump was trying to "weaponize" the census to hurt immigrants and help Republicans.
"Let me be clear: The president’s directive is unconstitutional. It’s illegal, and it disregards the precedent set by every other president, beginning with George Washington," Maloney said in opening remarks.
But U.S. Rep. James Comer, the ranking Republican on the committee, said Trump’s order just applied to the process of redrawing congressional districts and didn’t affect the count or how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed. The Kentucky Republican said the order was constitutional. Including people living in the U.S. illegally during the apportionment process would undermine "the principle of one person, one vote," he said.
Although the Census Bureau has started examining methodologies for complying with the president’s order, that doesn’t change its goal of trying to count every person in the U.S., Dillingham said.
The White House has requested an additional $1 billion for the 2020 census to help with the challenges posed by the pandemic, but the Senate is proposing only $448 million, Dillingham said.
Concerns about the virus's spread caused the Census Bureau to suspend field operations in March and April and push back deadlines. The deadline for wrapping up the head count moved from the end of July to the end of October, though the bureau on Wednesday removed a reference to ending the count on Oct 31 from its website .
In April, the Census Bureau asked Congress to grant it a delay in the deadline for turning over data used for the process of redrawing congressional districts and legislative districts. If granted, the request would push back the deadline for turning over the data used for apportionment from Dec. 31 to April 30. It also would postpone the deadline for turning over data for redistricting legislative and local districts from March 30 to July 31.
The Democratic-controlled House agreed to the extensions as part of coronavirus relief legislation, but the Republican-controlled Senate has yet to do so
Outside experts worry that the extra funding requested by the White House signals an abandonment of the delay requests and is an attempt to speed up the count so that the numbers-crunching process for apportionment is conducted on Trump's watch and not a new administration should the president lose the election to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Last year, Trump issued an order to gather citizenship data on U.S. residents through administrative records after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked his administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form. Trump's order last week showed what the administration's true purpose was in trying to obtain citizenship information, said Gomez, the Democratic lawmaker.