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House Democrats look beyond funding in census preparations

Trump’s protracted fight over citizenship question has fueled partisan suspicions

The Trump administration’s protracted fight to add a citizenship question to the census has fueld suspicions among Democrats about many Census Bureau decisions. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Trump administration’s protracted fight to add a citizenship question to the census has fueld suspicions among Democrats about many Census Bureau decisions. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Frustrated by President Donald Trump’s preparations for the 2020 census, House Democrats are increasingly looking for ways — inside the Beltway and out of it — to fill perceived gaps in reaching the nation’s hardest to count.

Trump’s protracted fight to add a citizenship question to the census has fueled suspicions among Democrats about a myriad of other agency decisions, ranging from how quickly it is spending money to how many local offices the agency will open. They fear Trump’s interference could undercount the communities they represent — particularly immigrants and minorities — when its results are used to divvy up political representation and federal funds, as well as serve as a base for business decisions and research.

Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin, who chairs the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee that supervises the census, sees Trump’s hand in census preparations, and his panel has pushed for Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham to be more open about operations.

“The White House is now treating the census like an extension of campaign politics. So just as GOP voter suppression tactics have endangered elections, their suppression tactics are endangering the census, too,” Raskin said.

The census has traditionally been seen as a nonpartisan government function, but these fights put it at risk of being seen as an inherently political process, said Kenneth Prewitt, who served as Census Bureau director from 1998 to 2001.

“In this current environment the census has been discussed as if it’s a political football, to reward the Democratic Party or Republican Party. That’s a very bad place to be. That creates a lot of mistrust in the census,” Prewitt said.

Democrats, though, said they feel obligated to stand up for their communities. California Rep. TJ Cox penned a letter asking the Census Bureau to publicize the results of a test conducted this summer on the citizenship question’s impact. The bureau has yet to respond.

Cox said immigrant workers at a grape harvest in his district expressed to him their concern about the administration’s approach to immigrants.

“There’s justified fear out there because this is an administration who’s made it very clear that they don’t want them here,” he said.

Other Democrats have penned their own letters, on everything from ensuring outreach in South Asian languages to countering online misinformation.

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Census funding fight

Democrats have pushed to increase spending on the census next fiscal year, arguing that the administration’s initial $5.9 billion request would be inadequate. New York Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, who co-chairs the Census Caucus, and other Democrats argued for nearly $8.2 billion in census funding for the fiscal year.

“The census is unlike other federal agencies, which may be able to pare down activities and services when funding runs short. With the decennial census, we are at the culmination of an intense ten-year preparation cycle, and we only have one shot to get the count right,” Maloney said in a statement.

Appropriators have sought to influence Census Bureau decisions through language in previous spending bills by making certain funds conditional, or flagging them for specific programs. However, there may be little time remaining for more changes: Dillingham told members of Congress earlier this year that it’s too late for changes like adding new language translations for questionnaires or additional brick-and-mortar census offices.

New York Democrat Grace Meng argued the short timeline makes funding critical since the Census Bureau has already scaled back or canceled several tests of what will be the first primarily online census.

“This is something that will affect the economy on many different levels. Any mistake is a 10-year mistake for communities, Republican and Democratic, throughout the country,” she said.

Outside the Beltway

As Democrats hit the limits of their ability to change policy in the House, they’ve increasingly turned to a network of outside organizations gearing up for next year’s count.

The Congressional Black Caucus established its own task force, led by Nevada Democrat Steven Horsford, to work with groups like the Urban League and Fair Count, founded by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

“Clearly, the Trump administration, with the census question and other things that they’ve done, have targeted certain communities, that it’s already making them feel less than willing to participate and be involved civically,” Horsford said. “We already are hearing it on the ground.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus made “You Count!” a theme of its leadership conference earlier this month. It also enlisted the TV ratings group Nielsen, Facebook and other companies in a plenary session on census issues.

The groups are looking to latch on to the Census Bureau’s “trusted voices” strategy in individual communities and leverage their connections to drive census turnout. The bureau itself has said it’s on track for those local partnerships — officials said earlier this month they had more than 50,000 agreements with local and national organizations. Dillingham said at an event last week that the agency is “on schedule and on budget” for other efforts like address verification.

Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro, who chairs the Hispanic Caucus, said census officials themselves have been supportive, but he worries about efforts from the Commerce Department and White House.

“The Census Bureau itself has been fairly responsive, but they’re not getting much support from the higher-ups in the administration,” Castro said. “My fear is that there’s going to be a severe undercount, particularly with minority communities.”

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