Silent Secretary Ross Subpoenaed Over Census Disarray

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies during the House Oversight Committee hearing on on March 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Following repeated refusals to hand over critical documents that could illuminate errors in the 2020 U.S. census, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was subpoenaed Thursday by House lawmakers. 

“Your approach to Congress’ oversight responsibilities has been abominable,” Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat who chairs the House Oversight Committee, wrote in a Thursday letter to Ross. “You have repeatedly withheld documents that should have been produced as a matter of course to your Department’s oversight committee. You have withheld them not only from Congress, but from the independent Government Accountability Office and, according to Census Bureau officials, the federal Judiciary as well.”

This is the second time the commerce secretary has been subpoenaed by Congress for information related to the 2020 census. In July 2019, he refused to produce documents pertaining to a citizenship question that Supreme Court blocked him from adding to the decennial survey.

Though the Trump administration had claimed that a citizenship question would improve data collection and better enforce the rights of voters, the justices were unanimous that such rationale appeared “contrived.”

Experts predicted that a citizenship question would actually discourage participation from already hard-to-count groups like immigrants, ultimately benefiting Republicans. Because immigrants tend to live in cities, which tend to vote Democratic, the failure to include them in census counts would give Democrats fewer seats in Congress and fewer federal dollars for services.

Even after Supreme Court defeat, however, Trump took another tack at changing how immigrants are counted, issuing executive order this past July that would have the Commerce Department omit undocumented immigrants from a count used to determine apportionment in the House.

Though a panel of federal judges blocked the order, the Supreme Court has not yet indicated how it will rule following oral arguments last month.

Last year’s conflagration over the citizenship question led the House hold both Ross and Attorney General William Barr in criminal contempt of Congress. Though one of the most powerful tools at lawmakers’ disposal, the tool’s teeth are dull without Senate support. 

In this latest subpoena, the data sought by Chairwoman Maloney would likely illuminate or confirm evidence of delays that were shared with her committee by an unnamed source.

Provided in PowerPoint format ahead of a public oversight hearing, the first slides depicted more than dozen data anomalies that have affected 900,000 census records.

That first error report was produced internally, and additional records show that census officials went on to identify two more mistakes impacting another 240,000 records. 

Yet another file shared with the committee appears to confirm that career census officials did not believe the census data would be collected completely nor on time. The Census Bureau pointed to some point between January 23 and January 26 as the likely release date. The records also revealed that the second census report on undocumented immigrants requested by Trump would likely be produced by February 3.

Chairwoman Maloney noted in Thursday’s letter that when the committee went public with its findings during the hearing — it had only been reported days before by The New York Times — the Commerce Department still managed to fire off a public statement about the accuracy of the count despite its failure to cooperate with oversight requests in the past.

“Internal tracking documents would not convey the uncertainty around projected dates and may fail to reflect the additional resources employed to correct data anomalies. The anomalies affect less than seven-tenths of one percent of records and are being resolved as expeditiously as possible,” the Census Bureau said on Dec. 2. 

The bureau provided some records to the committee on Dec. 3 and Dec. 9. Those documents spanned about 5,500 combined pages — insufficient, according to Maloney. Most of the records produced were from “well before” any of the anomalies were reported, with some documents reaching back to 2012. Newer records, like those from June and July of this year were irrelevant because they contained information from before the White House announced its plan to curb field operations at the bureau.

“The productions do not include any additional documents regarding the anomalies identified on or after November 19, 2020, or the delays they are causing, which are the primary areas of focus for the committee’s inquiry,” Maloney wrote.

“Finally, the productions include extensive redactions of information directly prior to November 19, 2020, when reports of the anomalies first became public. For example, one document includes redactions of entire columns of information, such as ‘Previous Status’ and ‘Status,’ obscuring information relating to delays,” she added.

Maloney set a deadline of Dec. 9 for Ross to respond to the request before facing subpoena, but the day came and went without response from the department. According to Thursday’s letter, the chair issued the subpoena on the day of the deadline and shared it with the committee’s ranking Republican member, Representative James Comer of Kentucky.

Ross, under the subpoena, has until Dec. 21 to respond and produce all records as initially requested.

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