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DOJ Official Punts At House Hearing On Census Citizenship Question

Updated 4:20 p.m. ET, May 18

The acting head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, John Gore, dodged questions from lawmakers Friday about why the department requested a controversial citizenship question to be added to 2020 census forms.

Testifying in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Gore said he would not comment beyond publicly available information, citing the Justice Department's role in representing the Trump administration in ongoing lawsuits against the question. The division he leads at the department is charged with enforcing the Voting Rights Act — the law that the DOJ says is driving its push for the citizenship question.

"You can't answer a question as to whether you talked to your boss, who we pay?" asked Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, when Gore avoided responding directly about what he and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions have discussed about the department's request.

During the hearing, Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York called for the committee's chairman, Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, to issue a subpoena to force Gore to answer the committee's questions. But the committee voted to table Maloney's motion.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. (right) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., prepare for a hearing on May 8.
Andrew Harnik / AP
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. (right) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., prepare for a hearing on May 8.

Lawmakers were planning to issue a separate subpoena for Gore, who was a no-show after receiving an invitation to appear at the committee's May 8 hearing about the upcoming national head count.

At this earlier hearing, lawmakers did hear testimony from the Census Bureau's acting director, Ron Jarmin, plus a former DOJ official under President Barack Obama and representatives from the Government Accountability Office and Commerce Department, which oversees the census.

On Friday, Gore started his testimony by explaining that he did not attend the May 8 hearing so that he would not appear alongside a non-governmental expert witness testifying on a topic that's the subject of ongoing litigation.

Still, he was admonished by committee members, including Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California who suggested that Gore could have requested a separate hearing earlier. "It is not for the Department of Justice to simply say, 'We're not showing up if we don't get what we want,' " Issa said.

In December, the DOJ submitted a last-minute request for the citizenship question to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who approved the request in March. The DOJ says it needs a better count of voting-age citizens to enforce the Voting Rights Act's protections against discrimination of racial and language minorities. Since the law was enacted in 1965, the government has relied on estimates of U.S. citizens based on a smaller Census Bureau survey currently known as the American Community Survey. But the DOJ says it now requires citizenship data collected from every U.S. household through the census.

More than two dozen states and cities are suing the Trump administration to remove the citizenship question from the 2020 census form. They cite research by the Census Bureau that suggests asking about citizenship could discourage noncitizens, especially unauthorized immigrants, from participating in the census. The U.S. Constitution requires a head count of every person living in the country, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. That census information is used for reapportioning congressional seats, drawing legislative districts and distributing an estimated $800 billion a year in federal funds.

Whether the citizenship question stays on the 2020 census forms is likely to be determined by the courts or Congress. Some Democrats are working on bills that would remove the question, but their passage likely hinges on whether Democrats win majorities after the midterm elections in November.

In preparation for the recent House hearings, Democrats on the oversight committee have been trying to obtain internal documents from the Census Bureau and Commerce Department. NPR has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for those same documents. During the May 8 hearing, Jarmin said the Census Bureau has been advised by attorneys to hold off on releasing the documents until they are filed with the federal courts as part of the lawsuits over the citizenship question.

Cummings said the delay "constrained" the lawmakers' inquiries. He also expressed disbelief in the Trump administration's reasoning for the citizenship question — to protect the rights of voters.

"Give me a break!" Cummings exclaimed.

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.