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House Oversight panel subpoenas Wilbur Ross for census records

Democrats want internal documents related to ‘grave data problems’ with 2020 results

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, here at a hearing in March 2019, has been accused by House Democrats of “repeatedly” withholding documents about errors related to the 2020 census results.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, here at a hearing in March 2019, has been accused by House Democrats of “repeatedly” withholding documents about errors related to the 2020 census results. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Oversight and Reform Committee issued a subpoena Thursday to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, for documents concerning errors in finalizing 2020 census results. 

Citing leaked census documents about “grave data problems,” Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., criticized Ross for holding on to documents showing hundreds of thousands of errors in the count. 

Both Maloney and the Government Accountability Office have said the Commerce Department has prevented the Census Bureau from sharing information about the final steps of the count.

“Your approach to Congress’ oversight responsibilities has been abominable,” Maloney said in a letter Thursday to Ross. “You have repeatedly withheld documents that should have been produced as a matter of course to your Department’s oversight committee.”

The Commerce Department released a statement Friday calling the committee’s efforts “political ploys” and argued it had provided thousands of documents to the House.

“Rest assured, the Department of Commerce remains committed to a complete and accurate count for the 2020 Decennial Census – it is our Constitutional obligation as both Government Officials and Americans,” the statement said.

The Census Bureau first acknowledged anomalies in the data last month, and Maloney sent a letter demanding documents about the problems. Agency representatives provided a bipartisan briefing but did not provide the requested information.

Last week, the Oversight Committee released a series of leaked documents from the agency showing officials found errors in more than 900,000 records. Census experts said those problems could result in missing or double counting tens of thousands of people.

Since then, the agency has provided thousands of pages of documents, which Maloney said did not address the questions she asked.

The federal government uses census data to divvy up 435 congressional districts as well as to guide more than $1.5 trillion in spending annually. Small changes in the count could easily sway the distribution of seats — in 2000, Utah lost out on a fourth congressional seat by 857 people.

States also use the census information to draw legislative districts and private businesses make decisions based on the data.

With the stakes so high, the American Statistical Association and the Census Bureau’s own advisory panel recommended the agency receive a 120-day extension to the count, as well as release detailed metrics about the accuracy of the count.

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants from congressional apportionment. Following that, the administration abandoned its plan to extend the census deadline into April, preferring to end the count by the existing end-of-year statutory deadline.

However, the Census Bureau has run into trouble with that deadline. Leaked documents released by the Oversight panel show the agency would have to delay delivery of census results by several weeks to fix the problems identified so far.

Unless agency officials deliver results before Jan. 20, President-elect Joe Biden would have control over their distribution. Last week, Biden released a statement attributing Trump’s effort to “the partisan politics of intimidation and xenophobia” and said the Census Bureau should have enough time to complete its work.

Previously, the Oversight panel struggled with Ross and Attorney General William Barr over access to documents tied to the administration’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the census. Eventually, the House held the pair in contempt over the documents.

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