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Census Bureau Documents Show Internal Warnings About Adding Citizenship Question

Jun 9, 2018
Press Release
Cummings Renews Call for Subpoena After Trump Administration Withholds Key Documents

Washington, D.C. (June 9, 2018)—Last night, the Department of Commerce produced to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and other offices a limited set of documents that it also produced in conjunction with litigation relating to the Trump Administration’s sudden decision to add an untested new citizenship question to the 2020 Decennial Census.

Among these documents is an internal memo from the Chief Scientist at the Census Bureau to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on January 19, 2018, warning that adding a citizenship question “is very costly, harms the quality of the census count, and would use substantially less accurate citizenship status data than are available from administrative sources.”

The internal memo also warns:

  • “[A]dding the citizenship question would be much more expensive and would depend on exactly when the implementation decision was made during the production cycle.”
  • “Three distinct analyses support the conclusion of an adverse impact on self-response and, as a result, on the accuracy and quality of the 2020 Census.”
  • “It is therefore a reasonable inference that a question on citizenship would lead to some decline in overall self-response because it would make the 2020 Census modestly more burdensome in the direct sense, and potentially much more burdensome in the indirect sense that it would lead to a larger decline in self-response for noncitizen households.”
  • “Accordingly, the addition of a question on citizenship could increase the cost of the 2020 Census by at least $27.5 million.  It is worth stressing that this cost estimate is a lower bound.”
  • “We believe that $27.5 million is a conservative estimate because the other evidence cited in this report suggests that the differences between citizen and noncitizen response rates and data quality will be amplified during the 2020 Census compared to historical levels.”

Also among the document production is an email exchange from July 2017 in which Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach recounts a call he had several months earlier with Secretary Ross “at the direction of Steve Bannon.”  In his email, Kobach proposes the specific language for the citizenship question, which he argues is “essential” and “needs to be added to the census.” 

However, last night’s production omits entire categories of requested documents, including email and other communications with the Department of Justice and the White House explaining why the warnings of career experts at the Census Bureau were overruled.

In response, Oversight Committee Ranking Member Elijah E. Cummings issued the following statement renewing his call for the Committee to issue subpoenas to the Departments of Commerce and Justice:

“Even this limited documents production reveals that the Trump Administration overruled the warnings of career experts at the Census Bureau, and now we need to know why.  For months, we have been asking our Republican colleagues to join us in obtaining documents about the Trump Administration’s sudden decision to add an untested new citizenship question to the census, and for months they have been telling us to wait until this week—when all of these documents were supposed to be turned over.  Unfortunately, the documents we received are severely inadequate and include only a fraction of the documents we requested in order to fulfill our constitutional oversight responsibilities.  It is time for congressional Republicans to stop using private litigation as an excuse not to do our job in Congress.  I urge Chairman Gowdy to make good on his promise and immediately issue subpoenas to compel the Departments of Commerce and Justice to produce all the documents we requested more than two months ago.”

Republicans have argued that if the Committee did not receive the requested documents this week, they would support the issuance of subpoenas.  For example, during the Committee’s business meeting on May 23, 2018, Chairman Trey Gowdy stated: 

“It just strikes me that waiting until June the 8th is a—is a—fairly small accommodation given the fact that they have assured us multiple times the—the—information will be made available. … If we don’t have them contemporaneous with the court filing, I’ll be the biggest cheerleader you have.”

Similarly, Republican Committee Member Paul Mitchell stated:

“The Chairman has conceded or acknowledged, when they file their response to litigation, they will respond to the questions.  If they do not respond to the questions, I will join the Chairman and vote to proceed with a subpoena for the questions we’re entitled to.  But to suggest that they respond to us prior to responding to legal action, Mr. Raskin, you know better.  You wouldn’t do it if you were there.  You can’t do it until you make your filing.  So let’s be reasonable about this—let’s move on, if he doesn’t respond, let’s deal with him then.”

In addition, Republican Committee Member Mark Meadows stated:

“I will work very diligently with the Chairman and the Ranking Member to assure that we do get those documents cause no one in this body, on this Committee, has been stonewalled more by the Department of Justice than I have on a different issue, and—and—so I can relate, and I will not tolerate it for your side nor my side regardless of the administration.”

Background on Requests for Documents from Departments of Commerce and Justice

  • On March 26, the Commerce Department announced the decision to add the citizenship question.  On that date, Secretary Wilbur Ross issued a memo conceding that career officials at the Census Bureau “expressed concern” that adding a citizenship question “would negatively impact the response rate for noncitizens.”
  • On April 4, Ranking Member Elijah E. Cummings and Committee Members Carolyn Maloney, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Wm. Lacy Clay, Gerald Connolly, and Jimmy Gomez sent a letter to the Commerce Department requesting documents relating to these concerns.  The Department refused, instead telling Members that it was collecting documents in response to separate litigation and would produce those documents when they provided them to parties in the lawsuits.
  • On April 24, all Democratic Members of the Committee sent a letter requesting that Chairman Gowdy subpoena the Commerce Department for these documents.  He did not respond.
  • On May 1, Committee Democrats wrote a letter to the Justice Department requesting documents relating to its role in the decision to add the citizenship question.  After the Department failed to respond, the Democrats wrote to Gowdy on May 15, requesting that he subpoena those documents.  He did not respond.
  • On May 21, Ranking Member Cummings sent a letter requesting that Chairman Gowdy place on the agenda for the Committee’s next business meeting motions to subpoena these documents from the Commerce and Justice Departments.  The Chairman did not respond.  At the business meeting on May 23, Rep. Maloney offered a motion for the Committee to debate and vote on these subpoenas, but Republicans blocked their consideration.

In addition, on May 23, Republicans on the Oversight Committee defeated, on a party-line vote of 20 to 16, H. Res. 877, a Resolution of Inquiry introduced by Committee Member Jimmy Gomez seeking documents from the Secretary of Commerce related to the citizenship question.

115th Congress