Democratic lawmakers intent on making sure that unprecedented efforts by the Trump administration to politicize the 2020 census never happen again are moving forward with plans for safeguards they say will help the U.S. head count stay free of future interference.
Democratic House members are preparing this week to send legislation to the House floor that would put in place roadblocks against political meddling in the U.S. census, which determines political power and federal funding.
The House legislation getting a hearing this week in front of the Committee on Rules would require new questions on a census form to be vetted by Congress and mandate that a U.S. Census Bureau director couldn’t be fired without cause. The proposed legislation vests the Census Bureau director with all technical, operational and statistical decisions and says a deputy director has to be a career staffer with experience in demographics, statistics or related fields. If approved by the committee, it will be sent to the House floor for a vote later this week.
The Biden administration on Tuesday said it supported the legislation but indicated it may want changed provisions in the bill requiring that the Census Bureau's annual budget include estimated costs over five years. Those provisions were added after preparations for the 2020 census faced budget cuts and funding delays. The Biden administration wants to make sure the bill doesn't circumvent the Office of Management and Budget's role in formulating budget requests and avoids “impinging on the President’s authority over Executive Branch agencies," the office said in a statement.
The legislation's goals overlap with recommendations made Tuesday by the Brennan Center for Justice that would limit interference from the executive branch and increase congressional oversight of the census. The think tank, which opposed the Trump administration's efforts to end the U.S. head count early, recommends making the U.S. Census Bureau more independent.
The once-a-decade census determines how many congressional seats each state gets and the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending each year. Its results are used for redrawing political districts. The 2020 census was one of the most challenging in recent memory not only because of the attempts at political interference but also because of the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters.
In the years leading up to the 2020 census, the Trump administration unsuccessfully tried to add a citizenship question to the census questionnaire, a move that advocates feared would scare off Hispanics and immigrants from participating, whether they were in the country legally or not. The Supreme Court blocked the question.
The Trump administration also unsuccessfully tried to get the Census Bureau to exclude people in the country illegally from population figures used for divvying up congressional seats among the states, also called the apportionment numbers.
Critics claimed the citizenship question was inspired by a Republican redistricting expert who believed using citizen voting-age population instead of the total population for the purpose of redrawing of congressional and legislative districts could be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.
“Existing law leaves too much room for political actors to override the best statistical science and manipulate the census,” the Brennan Center report said.
The Brennan Center was among several groups and local governments that sued in 2020 to prevent the Trump administration from ending door-knocking operations a month earlier than planned under a revised schedule put out by the Census Bureau in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics feared the Trump administration wanted to end data collection and processing early to make sure President Donald Trump was still in office during the release of apportionment figures. The apportionment numbers were released in April 2021, four months after President Joe Biden took office and Trump left.
The Brennan Center report recommends making the Census Bureau entirely independent of the Commerce Department and giving the Census Bureau director, rather than political appointees at Commerce, final decision-making power over the census. The current director, Robert Santos, was appointed by Biden.
“Pulling the Census Bureau out from under the Commerce Department would be a major first step toward insulating the bureau against executive interference," the report said.
The Brennan Center also recommends a change that's not in the House legislation — creating permanent House and Senate committees or subcommittees dedicated to keeping track of the census. The current congressional committees that provide oversight have broad portfolios and can't dedicate the time needed on the census, according to the report.
Even though many of the Trump administration’s political efforts ultimately failed, some advocates believe they did have an impact, with significantly larger undercounts of most racial and ethnic minorities in the 2020 census compared to the 2010 census.
The Black population in the 2020 census had a net undercount of 3.3%, while it was almost 5% for Hispanics and 5.6% for American Indians and Native Alaskans living on reservations. Those identifying as some other race had a net undercount of 4.3%.
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