WASHINGTON - Democratic lawmakers accused Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday of secretly orchestrating the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, citing an email they say shows he misled Congress about the decision.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the chairman of the House oversight panel, said documents show Ross engaged in a campaign to add the question from the first days he joined the Commerce Department.
"These documents showed that he was not merely responding to a request from another agency," Cummings said. "To the contrary, he was choreographing these efforts behind the scenes, he became impatient when his demands were not being met, and he was working directly with officials at the highest levels of the Trump administration to force this issue through."
Ross testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in an often contentious hearing. He stuck with his explanation from previous hearings that Justice Department officials made a formal request to include the citizenship question to help it enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Census Bureau initiated a review to consider alternatives to DOJ's request. Ultimately, Ross determined in March 2018 that reinstating the question was warranted.
Some 18 states, 15 big cities or counties, and immigrants' rights groups have sued the Commerce Department. The plaintiffs say an undercount of Latinos and immigrants would jeopardize federal funding and congressional representation in states with a substantial number of both groups.
Two federal judges have declared the move to reinstate the question illegal. A federal judge in New York had previously blocked the administration from adding the question to the population count that occurs every 10 years, and the Supreme Court last month agreed to review that decision.
Democratic lawmakers accused Ross of misleading Congress because he had previously testified "we are responding solely to the Department of Justice's request."
The most withering criticism came from Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., who said Ross withheld critical information from Congress about what led up to the decision. He read an email from Ross that came months before the DOJ's request for the citizenship question, which stated: "I am mystified why nothing have been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question. Why not?"
Clay said Ross failed to mention the memo when previously testifying to Congress. He asked Ross whether he wanted to "take responsibility today for misleading Congress, whether intentionally or not about the process you followed to add the citizenship question."
"I have never intentionally misled Congress or intentionally said anything incorrect under oath," Ross said.
Clay refused to accept that answer and accused Ross of being "complicit in the Trump's administration's intent to suppress the growing political power of the non-white population." He said Ross should resign.
A citizenship question has not appeared on the once-in-a-decade headcount since 1950, though it has been on the American Community Survey, for which the Census Bureau annually polls 3.5 million households.
Democrats also released a memo noting that a Department of Justice official told committee staff last week that in the fall of 2017, the Commerce Department's James Uthmeier hand-delivered what Cummings called a "secret memo and handwritten note" on the citizenship question to John Gore in the civil rights division at the Department of Justice.
That delivery occurred months before the DOJ formally requested the citizenship question. Gore would not reveal to committee staff the content of the memo or the note, based on recommendations from counsel at the department.
"Did the secret memo or note describe the real reason you wanted to ask the citizenship question?" Cummings asked.
Ross said he did not believe such a message was delivered, but if there was a document of that sort he wanted the chance to review it.
The Trump administration's decision to ask people about their citizenship has set off worries among Democrats that immigrants and their families will dodge the survey altogether, diluting political representation for states that tend to vote Democratic and robbing many communities of federal dollars.
Ross sought to emphasize that the Trump administration has boosted spending for the census and that it was using the money to increase its advertising budget and hire more community partners.
"We have done all kinds of things we can think of to make sure we have the best census possible," Ross said.
Republicans said it was completely appropriate to add the citizenship question to the census.
"For the life of me, I do not know why the Democrats don't want to know how many citizens are in the United States of America," said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican. "But for some reason, they are focused on this question.