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House relief bill would give census time and money – with strings attached

The bill would block Trump's efforts to produce block-level citizenship data using government records

Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney has pushed for more transparency from Census Bureau officials.
Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney has pushed for more transparency from Census Bureau officials. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats would scuttle President Donald Trump’s plan to let states draw legislative maps based on the population of citizens following the 2020 census, under a bill unveiled Tuesday that would also grant the administration its requested deadline extension to complete the decennial count.

The language in the broader coronavirus relief bill also would provide $400 million to the Census Bureau to deal with pandemic-related delays. The administration would have until May 1, 2021, to finish congressional apportionment and until July 1 of that year to give map-making data to the states.

House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., whose panel oversees the census, previously pushed for the administration to be more transparent about its plans to handle a delayed census, asking for better access to census officials and staff.

“In addition, recognizing that Congress has a constitutional responsibility to help ensure a fair and accurate Census, this bill extends key deadlines as a result of the coronavirus crisis while enhancing congressional oversight of Census operations,” she said in a statement Tuesday.

Under the bill, House Democrats would mandate monthly operational reports to Congress and have the Census Bureau prioritize data distribution to states with the earliest map-making deadlines, like New Jersey and Virginia, with 2021 legislative elections.

Last month, the administration announced it would delay many operations until at least June 1 and requested a four-month extension to its statutory deadlines. Census officials also said the administration did not plan to use all of its $2 billion contingency fund to deal with the altered  operation schedule.

[Census Bureau to restart operations in rural areas of country]

Language in the bill would also try to prohibit the administration from distributing a planned dataset based on the population of citizens of voting age.

Trump ordered the production of that data using federal administrative records after the Supreme Court ruled that adding a citizenship question to the census was unlawful. The president had hoped to let states draw legislative lines based on U.S. citizenship, rather than actual population.

The House bill, however, would prohibit the distribution of census-based data that wasn’t collected on the questionnaire.

Arturo Vargas, CEO of the NALEO Educational Fund, a Latino advocacy group, pointed out the language in the bill would force the administration to focus on what the Constitution requires from  the census. His group and others nationwide have opposed a citizenship question for fear it would depress response rates among immigrants.

“The bureau is stretched already in unimaginable ways. Not having to devote resources and staff time to something that is unnecessary is just smart policy,” Vargas said. “Focus on what you have to get done and not on extracurricular activities that are not necessary to get the job done.”

Separately, the bill’s language would give colleges and universities a waiver on a federal student privacy law that shares student information with the Census Bureau. Administration and higher education officials have said the pandemic scuttled plans to count college students, especially those living off campus, and the additional flexibility may allow colleges to obtain a more complete count.

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