Battle Over 2020 Census Heats Up On Capitol Hill
By Jennifer G. Hickey | April 4, 2019
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies was scheduled to hear from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on April 3, but were left to direct their ire at an empty chair after Ross declined to appear to discuss the Bureau’s budget request.
Ross has been the target of Democrat outrage since the Commerce Department announced in March 2018 their intent to include a question on the 2020 Census asking all respondents whether they are U.S. citizens. And feared his appearance before the subcommittee would serve the political motives of the panelists, rather than as legitimate oversight of the budget.
“The Subcommittee apparently intends to recognize an ‘empty chair,’ thereby forgoing the opportunity to ask meaningful questions about the Department’s budget and operations priorities,” Ross wrote in an April 2 letter to subcommittee Chairman Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.).
“This development affirms that my appearance at this time would unfortunately distract from the Department’s important business before the Subcommittee,” he added.
The Commerce Department’s 2018 announced sparked controversy and a lawsuit challenging the decision. Judge Jesse M. Furman of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled on January 15 that Ross's decision to add the question violated the Administrative Procedure Act.
On March 29, the Supreme Court agreed to an expedited review of the matter and arguments will be heard on April 23 with a decision likely before the end of the Court’s term.
In the meantime, Democrats showed a continued desire to make it a political, rather than a legal matter.
Not to be “distracted” by the empty chair, the Democrat majority continued the hearing – or at least the reading of prepared statements.
Democrats and special interest groups have claimed that simply asking people to answer check a box on a form is threatening.
Not only did Ross commit to testifying at a time when there was more clarity surrounding the citizenship question, he offered to send Senate-confirmed experts to speak on Bureau’s budget.
With an empty chair and a name plate on the witness table, the hearing proceeded with members delivering prepared remarks, which primarily focused on Ross’ absence and political statements.
During his time, Rep. Tom Graves (R-Georgia) took issue with criticisms of Secretary Ross from the Democrat majority. He reaffirmed Ross’ desire not to be a distraction from the issues about the budget and also noted that Richard Cordray, former director of the Consumer Finance Protection Board (CFPB), repeatedly refused to testify throughout his entire tenure.
Ross did not appear before the Senate either, but the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations subcommittee did receive testimony from 10 Commerce officials on its fiscal 2020 budget request.
After the members had an opportunity to deliver their statements, the committee adjourned without a single question about the Census Bureau’s budget being asked.
In a related matter, House Oversight Committee Democrats voted Tuesday to subpoena documents related to Ross’ decision to include the citizenship question.