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House Democrats Rebuffed on Getting Census Documents

Quest to get answers on citizenship question blocked by party-line committee vote

Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., says his resolution of inquiry was “about making sure we hold the administration accountable.” (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., says his resolution of inquiry was “about making sure we hold the administration accountable.” (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats tried this week to make the Commerce Department disclose documents about the decision-making behind a citizenship question on the 2020 census. But they were blocked by Republicans. 

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday voted 20-16 along party lines to reject the resolution of inquiry by California Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez and unfavorably report the measure. The vote prevents the resolution from moving to the House floor.

Some committee Republicans called the resolution “poorly directed.”

“The department has valid reasons why they are not turning over documents on this question and I think we have better things to spend time on,” Michigan GOP Rep. Paul Mitchell said.

Rep. Jody B. Hice argued the citizenship question is crucial and would help the government get a more accurate count of the U.S. population. The Georgia Republican noted that it has been included in the American Community Survey, which surveys fewer people than the 10-year census, since 2005.

The citizenship question was last included in the short-form census in 1950. It has been part of the long-form version of the census since 1971.

“As you can see, the citizenship question was and remains a very important statistical question throughout the history of the census,” Hice said.

Democrats say it is the panel’s responsibility to provide oversight.

“This is not just about the census. This about making sure we hold the administration accountable, that there is actually a check on the executive branch,” Gomez said.

Democrats pushed for the resolution after sending several letters to the Commerce Department seeking information. They are concerned the question will intimidate immigrants from participating in the census, which is used to distribute federal funds, among other things.

The resolution would have compelled Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to turn over documents relating to which agencies and individuals were involved in the decision to include the new citizenship question in the 2020 census.

Specifically, the resolution asked for the original letter sent by Arthur E. Gary, general counsel of the Justice Management Division at the Justice Department, to acting Census Bureau Director Ron Jarmin on Dec. 12 that asked the agency to add the citizenship question.

Jarmin told the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee last month that the majority of census respondents would not be affected because they are citizens, but it could possibly skew response rates in immigrant communities.

A resolution of inquiry is an obscure legislative tool used to get information from the executive branch. Democrats have deployed this tactic in a bid for documents from the Trump administration, particularly President Donald Trump’s tax records. Their strategy has been to force recorded votes on these topics.

A resolution of inquiry must be marked up within 14 legislative days of introduction. Gomez filed his resolution on May 8.

Dean DeChiaro contributed to this report.

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